Report — From the March 2013 issue

The Unraveling of Bo Xilai

China loses a populist star

When Wang Lijun fled for Chengdu, he evaded guards outside his door who, a few weeks earlier, would have bowed to his authority. He drove quietly out of a city full of policemen who once would have called him a hero. It was a Monday early last February and Wang, a stocky fifty-two-year-old with jet-black hair, a bulldog face, and wire-rimmed glasses, had recently been removed from his position as police chief of the sprawling Chinese city of Chongqing. There were powerful forces at work against him. Officials in Beijing were reported to be investigating Wang’s record in the city of Tieling, in the northern province of Liaoning, where he had also worked as police chief. His driver had been detained and things were going south with his boss, the Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, a man named Bo Xilai.

The accepted story starts with Wang waiting until evening to slip past the guards, then has him switch license plates somewhere along the highway. In the juicier versions, he takes the extra precaution of disguising himself as an old lady. People say he feared Bo Xilai was going to assassinate him. (One Hong Kong magazine would later report that Bo had considered three distinct ways of arranging Wang’s death.) Other people say Wang had vowed that if he went down for corruption, he would take Bo with him. At least one part of the story can be confirmed: Wang showed up at the U.S. Consulate on the evening of February 6 with a mysterious box of papers. He stayed inside for thirty-six hours, talking about Bo Xilai and a man named Neil Heywood while police cars of various jurisdictions accumulated outside. According to a State Department spokeswoman, the former police chief then “left the consulate of his own volition.” He was shuttled to Beijing by national-security agents and wouldn’t be seen again until his trial seven months later.

Once Wang made it safely inside the consulate, someone quickly leaked the news. Photos from outside the building were spreading on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter variant. It took very little time before people started speculating that Wang was seeking asylum. They wondered what had driven him out of Chongqing. Around eleven a.m. on Tuesday, a cryptic message appeared on the Sina Weibo account of the Chongqing government, only to disappear a few hours later:

According to reports, because of long-term overwork, a state of anxiety and indisposition, Vice Mayor Wang Lijun has agreed to accept vacation-style medical treatment.

China has long preferred to keep its leadership machinations in the shadows. When a scandal comes to light, it tends to do so in a series of facts, half-truths, and outright lies that are nearly indistinguishable from one another. This process blurs the lines between reality and politics, history and propaganda, and, in Wang’s case, between a murder investigation and a political takedown. “The reverse of truth,” wrote Montaigne, “has a hundred thousand shapes and a limitless field.” China’s political scandals offer little verifiable information, and little of it is recoverable by historians. When, for example, Mao’s second-in-command, a man named Lin Biao, disappeared in 1971, it took months for the public to figure out where he had gone. Mao announced that Lin’s plane had crashed somewhere over Mongolia. Later, Chinese officials claimed Lin had been heading to the Soviet Union after an abortive attempt on Mao’s life. Western scholars have long doubted this account, but intervening decades have offered little in the way of clarifying information.

In the years prior to his flight, Wang had been building his power at the side of China’s most colorful and controversial politician. Bo Xilai had brought him to Chongqing to help launch a dramatic crackdown on the city’s mafia. The resulting criminal and municipal-corruption trials made the front pages of newspapers all over the nation, which celebrated the downfall of such criminals as Xie Caiping, the Godmother of the Underworld, and Wen Qiang, the city’s former deputy police commissioner. Bo seemed poised to soar up through the ranks of the Communist Party; Wang’s base of power seemed secure. Wang was so pleased with himself that he was said to be commissioning a movie about his partnership with Bo and their role in the crackdown. This was, of course, before Bo Xilai lost his job and his political standing, before his wife became implicated in the murder of a foreign national. Wang was the first loose thread.

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’s last article for Harper’s Magazine, “The World, Shanghaied,” appeared in the October 2010 issue.

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