Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
March 2013 Issue [Report]

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.

Since the death of Deng Xiaoping in the 1990s, China’s leaders have become increasingly bland. To guard the country against the risk of another Mao, they rule by consensus, and the consensus builders, until very recently, have all been technocrats. Leaders in Beijing rely for their power on the popular perception that they have specialized knowledge, on an aura of wise remove and a façade that suggests seamless, monolithic conformity. When provincial or municipal leaders misbehave, the national party’s upper echelons can claim ignorance or swoop in like angry parents. People still turn up in Beijing to petition the central government as they once would have petitioned the emperor, seeking redress for local injustices.

Maybe it is because of this scrupulous image management that China’s leaders seldom smile and almost never wave. Once, someone threw a shoe at Chinese premier Wen Jiabao during a speech he was giving at Cambridge University. Where George W. Bush, facing a similar projectile in Baghdad, had dodged athletically, Wen didn’t duck or even flinch. The shoe went wide and he paused for a moment, allowing his gaze to follow its arc. Wen is considered one of China’s most accessible politicians, but he chooses his words so deliberately that a British journalist once likened his manner to that of a teacher in a classroom of children with learning disabilities.

In this world of poker faces, Bo Xilai was a smiler. He was a different kind of politician simply because he acted like a politician. He was tall and good-looking and wore nicely tailored suits. He held press conferences and shook hands vigorously. He drew attention to himself, and to China’s government, while other political leaders were careful to keep a low profile. As the Party secretary of Chongqing from 2007 to 2012, Bo built an image as the champion of China’s downtrodden and an upholder of communist values. He promoted his accomplishments in speeches and through the state-controlled media. In 2009, Chinese outlets reported that atop six Chongqing high-rise buildings signs had been erected that read secretary bo, you work hard.

Although he played the populist, Bo was as close to royalty as members of the Chinese Communist Party get. He is a “princeling,” the powerful son of a powerful revolutionary leader. His father, Bo Yibo, was one of China’s “Eight Immortals,” a group of men who ruled the Communist Party under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and early 1990s. Before he became powerful, however, Bo Yibo and his family suffered. During the Cultural Revolution he was denounced by the Party, and the younger Bo, after a short run with a faction of the Red Guards called United Action, spent his early twenties in a labor camp. His mother had been abducted by another Red Guard faction, and died in their custody as a result of either illness, murder, or suicide. When people want to underscore Bo’s ruthlessness, they will often bring up an unverified story from this period about how Bo once beat up his disgraced father, breaking the older man’s ribs to protect his own reputation. According to a little-known author named Yang Guang, who writes that he heard it from a man named Yang Beicheng, the elder Bo once said that this was the moment he realized his son would be a good Party leader.

After Mao’s death, the family made a comeback. In 1992, Bo Yibo proposed that each high-ranking veteran of the revolution “contribute one child” to the national party’s future leadership. By then, many children of revolutionaries were already on track to become high-ranking officials, supported by their parents but expected to prove their worth. Xi Jinping, who became leader of the Communist Party this past November and is expected to be named president this month, is the son of the revolutionary Xi Zhongxun. Xi was sent to Hebei province in 1982 to get his start in Zhengding County. By 1986, Liu Yuan, the son of Liu Shaoqi, was serving as the mayor of a city in Henan province. Bo Xilai had gone to university to study world history and journalism with the ambition of becoming a foreign correspondent. He ended up working as the deputy Party secretary of a rural county in Liaoning province, where he steadily rose through the ranks.

Before he arrived in Chongqing in 2007, Bo had served as the Party secretary of Dalian, Liaoning’s second-biggest city, then the governor of the entire province, after which he moved to Beijing to serve as minister of commerce. In Dalian, Bo planted so much grass that people started calling it Xilai grass. He deftly courted foreign investors and money poured in, transforming the city. Bo instated fines for cursing in public. He hired a biographer. Around the same time, Gu Kailai, Bo’s second wife (his first marriage having ended in a messy divorce), became one of the first Chinese lawyers to win a civil lawsuit in the United States; she wrote a book that got turned into a TV miniseries called Winning a Lawsuit in America.

Even during his rise in Dalian, Bo also demonstrated a knack for making enemies. During the Fifteenth Party Congress, though he was serving as the mayor of Liaoning’s second-biggest city, Bo was so disliked by other officials that he was excluded from the provincial delegation. During his tenure in Dalian, Bo sentenced a journalist named Jiang Weiping to eight years in jail for revealing state secrets — this soon after Jiang published a series of articles on the Bo family’s shady business dealings. (“To get any contracts in the city, you had to go through Bo’s wife,” I was told by Jiang, who is now living in Canada.) In a leaked cable from the U.S. Consulate dated December 4, 2007, one consular source named Gu Su commented that Bo had been hurt by his reputation for using people and trading on his name.

By the time Bo was sent to Chongqing (the Communist Party shuffles lesser personnel once every five years, top leaders once every ten), his appointment as the city’s Party secretary was widely considered a sidelining. Bo, it was already clear, was seeking a more powerful post — one of China’s most powerful posts, in fact: a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee. The committee’s numbers have in the past twenty years fluctuated between seven and nine. Two of the seats are occupied by China’s president and premier; in many cases, these two are no more influential than their five or seven comrades.

In early 2012, the Party was preparing to swap out the majority of its standing-committee members in its decennial leadership transition, a maneuver that had been accomplished without incident only once before. There is really no good time for an attempted defection, and Wang Lijun had picked both the worst and the last possible moment to flee. The transition was fast approaching, and Bo was expected to participate. If you opposed Bo, and many people did, this was the final opportunity to get rid of him before he possibly took a seat at the pinnacle of China’s political apparatus.

Three weeks after Wang fled, I spoke to Cheng Li, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who has been following China’s leadership changes for decades. According to Li, the players who wished to use Wang to oust Bo faced a dilemma: “If you only charge him with corruption, this is not enough, because in the Chinese popular mind most leaders are corrupt. You need to find something more than a corruption scandal. But then you will enter a new arena. You could shock the public about how awful it has been in the central leadership.”

There are two big political meetings in China: those of the National People’s Congress, held annually, usually in March, and the National Congress of the Communist Party, held every five years, usually in October. The first is for lawmaking, the second for personnel decisions. The NPC gathering takes place in the Great Hall of the People, a titanic classical building on the west side of Tiananmen Square. Red carpets run through the hall’s entryway, up the central stairs, and into the main auditorium, where officials gather under a gigantic red star set in the ceiling and surrounded by concentric circles of gold light.

On the opening morning of the 2012 NPC, about four weeks after Wang Lijun showed up at the American consulate, I stood at the east entrance of the Great Hall, waiting for Bo Xilai. For the most part, China’s top leaders avoid the pedestrian east entrance, which faces Tiananmen Square and leaves them open to the advances of journalists. They instead file in through the north entrance, where journalists are kept at bay with red velvet. The attendees’ preference is easy to understand; journalists have turned covering the NPC into a contact sport. (Considering that newspapers typically print only what government censors allow, the journalists’ enthusiasm is less easy to understand.) Officials of any rank or interest can be literally tackled by the Chinese press corps. Those trying to escape trip and fall with alarming frequency.

Bo had a populist image to uphold. In previous years he had strutted through the east entrance, leaving himself open to the mob, handling them with a smile. He had been the star of previous NPCs, often presiding over three-hour press conferences. Now, following Wang Lijun’s flight, people were unsure whether he would even show up. I stood with a pack of Chinese journalists in front of a line of metal detectors that were constantly going off and being ignored. Delegates were streaming in, some in military uniform, a few in the full ethnic regalia of their minority regions — colorful robes and elaborate headpieces. For the most part, however, the delegates tended to look the same: hair dyed black, suits black and boxy. They showed off only with their accessories; while I was occupied searching for Bo, Chinese photographers were busy zooming in on some outlandishly expensive watches. In the end, Bo came in through neither the north nor the east entrance. Someone suggested he had been smuggled in underground. No one saw him until he was seated, yawning and scribbling on a piece of paper, in the main auditorium of the Great Hall of the People.

The NPC is an overwhelming event, for the number of delegates, the reach of the decisions made there, and for the cat-and-mouse game the organizers play with the press. The event is designed to be totally impossible to navigate.

In order not to miss the Chongqing delegation’s press conference, I took to hounding all the Chinese journalists I knew. Eventually, a few days into the meeting, one of them told me that the press conference would be held the following morning. Bo hadn’t showed up at one of the big meetings that day, and people were speculating that this absence was the first sign of his imminent demise.

By the time I got to the Great Hall on Friday morning, a mob of angry journalists had gathered at the base of a staircase leading to some of the smaller meeting rooms in the building. A row of men in black suits were letting in only people who had applied online. There had been no application form on the NPC website. I lied to get past the first set of guards, telling them I had applied, and had made it up the first flight of red-carpeted stairs when someone with a clipboard and a list stopped me. On my way back down, an overzealous foreign-ministry functionary pushed me just enough that I lost my balance and fell into the throng, resulting in a brief moment of crowd surfing. Later, someone from the foreign ministry explained the media limitations. “It’s a small room,” he said. “This is for your safety!”

The handful of journalists who were let in were unsure what had earned them the privilege, but they were charitable. A reporter for Bloomberg News was emailing notes on the meeting as it progressed:

He’s drinking tea in a navy suit with yellow tie sitting under a big red banner . . . I didn’t see it coming, Bo says of Wang. This thing came on suddenly, Bo says of Wang Lijun. . . . He also broke some economic news, check it out: China’s Gini [a coefficient that measures wealth disparity] has exceeded 0.46, Bo says. Bo says reducing wealth divide and Gini Coefficient are major tasks of Chongqing govt. “If only a few people are rich then we are capitalists, we’ve failed,’’ Bo says.

History is full of examples of authoritarian regimes with little need of consent from the people they govern; China’s is not one of these. The Party’s concern with maintaining legitimacy, however, puts it in a difficult position. Its leaders cannot measure populist mandates in votes, and their judicial system does not operate independently of the Party. In other countries, leaders might be able to invoke royal or revolutionary birthright to justify their reign. In a functioning democracy, people can consent to a system even if they don’t like their current leaders. In China, however, the philosophical underpinnings of the Party’s right to power have been in flux over the past thirty years. To explain the worth of their ruling elite, they maintain that their system of leadership is a meritocracy. The Party has a stable bureaucracy, a robust security apparatus, and a sixty-three-year history of political, social, and economic revolution. Everything else is performance-based.

Even before the death of Deng Xiaoping, China’s last all-powerful head of state, Chinese leaders occupied themselves establishing legitimacy for the government as a cooperative. “They cannot base their legitimacy on the claim of representing the working class, as the revolutionary cadres did,” wrote the political scientist Hong Yung Lee of the Party in 1991. “And they will not be able to maintain their elite status unless they deliver the promised economic benefits to the Chinese people.” With no single charismatic leader to cement their authority, China’s leaders settled on a formula of bureaucracy and economic growth. “To rebel is justified” gave way to the technocrats’ policy of “scientific development.”

The problem with this formula now is that China’s economic boom is slowing. The government has started lowering its target for GDP growth. “There is a new game of politics,” says Brookings’s Cheng Li. “You need to find new sources of legitimacy.” Chinese people still report happiness with the direction of their country, but protests (“mass incidents”) have been happening with greater and greater frequency. One Tsinghua University professor estimated that there had been around 180,000 such incidents in 2010. It’s also becoming clear that China’s wealth is accumulating in some corners and not in others. Corruption among officials is one of the Party’s biggest challenges.

Bo Xilai offered a potential solution — one that didn’t require real political reform. He relied on his populist appeal, his revolutionary bloodline, and an utter disregard for the law. He was undoubtedly corrupt, but in Chongqing, as in Dalian, he rolled out policies with something for everyone. Bo orchestrated a return to communist values, sending out mass text messages with his favorite Mao quotes. He promoted the singing of “red songs” and banned all prime-time advertising on Chongqing’s television station, encouraging its executives to run patriotic films instead. Bo’s “red culture” campaign turned him into a figurehead for China’s New Left, a movement that lionizes Mao and looks to return to what adherents think of as a simpler, less corrupt era. Bo planted trees (Xilai trees), built low-income housing, and attracted investment. At the same time, Bo’s “Chongqing model” encouraged a greater economic role for China’s state-owned enterprises. His antimafia campaign, promoted with the slogan “Strike the black,” helped him wipe out his opponents and establish an extensive surveillance network — but it also helped Bo beef up the police force, making the city safer. Bo cast himself as a champion of China’s poor, a crusader against corruption, greed, and inequality.

“It’s not us who took the initiative to fight the underworld,” Bo said to the Chongqing media.

It’s the underworld who has compelled us to do so. The public has been gathering at the gate of our government building, holding blood-stained pictures, deeply distressed. The underworld has killed innocent people with machetes, like butchers killing pigs — too horrible to see.

His antimafia campaign could be interpreted as a criticism of Chongqing’s former leaders as well as of those in Beijing who had not cracked down publicly enough on corruption; he was disrupting the Party’s carefully groomed appearance of consensus. And once Bo’s mafia investigations were in full swing, he could target whomever he wanted. Business leaders who ran afoul of Bo’s friends sometimes found themselves wanted men.

While Bo was making his last stand at the NPC, I decided to take a day off and meet some of his supporters in the New Left. A website called Utopia had been one of Bo’s staunchest advocates, and its information page mentioned a “bookstore,” along with very detailed directions on how to get there. I gave them a call and a young, pleasant-sounding woman said I should stop by.

The Utopia bookstore looks like the kind of place I would have hung out as a college student. Located on the sixth floor of an apartment building, it is absolutely stuffed with books. A rack of green hats, each with a red star, greets visitors at the entrance. Farther inside, between bookcases and a central reading table, a tiny, dangerous-seeming spiral staircase leads up to a second level. There were a few T-shirts for sale, and on the wall was a back-lit clock decorated with a serene-looking Mao Zedong. When I walked in, a group of people stuffing envelopes at a table looked up from their work, and a middle-aged lady shouted, “A foreigner has arrived!”

After a few seconds of confusion, a kid wearing one of the green hats stood up from behind a computer monitor to greet me, introducing himself as Lei Ge. He explained that none of the people here represented Utopia. They were all volunteers or people who hung out in the bookstore, he said. They held all sorts of different beliefs. The only thing that united them, he said, was this large piece of calligraphy on the wall. I am a passable reader of printed Chinese, but a truly hopeless reader of calligraphy.

“What does it say?” I asked.

“It says, the people cherish chairman mao.”

I asked whether they were New Leftists, and Lei Ge started explaining that maybe some of them were New Leftists, which meant that they were people with socialist values who supported China’s economic reform. At this point a woman in a gray sweater with a red Mao pin on the left shoulder stood up and bellowed, “I don’t agree with our economic reform!” She walked over to me. “I represent myself! I am a regular old lady. I came here because my friend asked for help stuffing envelopes,” she said, waving an index finger at me that looked just a little too short. It appeared to have been chopped off at the top knuckle. “Who is my ideal leader?” she asked. “My ideal leader is Mao Zedong!”

Later it came out that she would settle for Bo Xilai. The people at Utopia bookstore were Bo’s target audience. They wanted to be engaged; they worried about the fate of their country and were hungry for more information, whatever the source. And Bo, more than other Chinese politicians, was available. For them, a little accessibility went a long way. The regular old lady listed her concerns: Capitalism had made some people happy, but it had made some people rich and some people poor. It had also made people corrupt. Leaders weren’t concerned with equality or the poor. China bowed too easily to America’s demands. And Bo Xilai, she said, was the only leader addressing her concerns. “We all pretty much support Bo Xilai here,” a visiting volunteer from Shandong told me. He was a little bit suspicious of me and asked to be identified as a “reader.”

The reader ended up being my favorite person in the room. He sat down with me and chatted while everyone else circulated to and from the table, cleaning up, taping together huge packages of books. The store was cold and the reader was wearing a puffy jacket. He had his hands jammed in his pockets and looked a little unkempt. He had a nice, gravelly voice. The reader said that big companies ought to be regulated more carefully and that leaders ought to pay attention to the poor. “Things might be all right with your friends in Beijing,” he said. “But if you go to a poor area and see how they live and what they eat . . . ” The reader had seen Utopia’s website and had sought out the bookstore for the first time on an earlier trip to Beijing. There aren’t many places like it, he told me.

A young woman who was sweeping scraps of paper from under the table chimed in. “We don’t have decision-making power,” she said. “But we can tell the government that we like Bo Xilai. We can let them know there are people who support Bo Xilai. This is all regular people can do.”

On the final day of the NPC, Wen Jiabao held his annual press conference — the last of his career. He took the opportunity to criticize Chongqing’s leaders, first obliquely and then directly. Bo’s red-songs campaign had reminded some in China of the Cultural Revolution, and Wen warned against allowing such a catastrophe to happen again. “Reform has reached a critical stage. Without the success of political reform, economic reforms cannot be carried out. The results that we have achieved may be lost,” he said. Later he added: “The present Chongqing municipal Party committee and the municipal government must reflect seriously and learn from the Wang Lijun incident.”

The next day, in a one-sentence bulletin released by the state-owned news service Xinhua, it was announced that Bo Xilai was being removed from his post in Chongqing:

Recently, the CPC Central Committee came to a decision: Zhang Dejiang has been appointed municipal committee member, standing committee member, and Party secretary of Chongqing; Bo Xilai will no longer serve as secretary, standing committee member, or member of the CPC Chongqing municipal committee.

He never went back to the city; aside from one Japanese political commentator who claims to have dined with him in April, no one has heard from him since. So the story of Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai became public in the typical fashion of Chinese scandals — through rumors and unnamed sources, punctuated by detectable amounts of government censorship and the rare short statement from the central leadership. Things appeared on and disappeared from the Internet. Bo’s name would end up blocked on Sina Weibo. The censors did their best to chase down his nicknames. Bo was known for his red spirit, so the censors soon had to block the word for “tomato.” “Why do rumors repeatedly arise in the Bo Xilai incident?” a Xinhua headline asked in April.

As soon as the one-sentence announcement was released, there was a minor explosion online. People variously celebrated or mourned Bo’s removal. Leftist websites were shut down. When you tried to reach Utopia, a message popped up saying the site was down for maintenance. It came back with much of its Bo Xilai content removed. Then another article in support of Bo Xilai appeared. Then the site was shut down again.

Eventually commenting was suspended on Sina Weibo for three days as a punishment to its users for spreading rumors, but in the days following the announcement Bo was among the most written-about topics. And then came the rumors of a coup. They arrived late at night with a photo that appeared to show a military tank poorly disguised as a green cargo truck rolling into Beijing. Someone reported hearing shots coming from Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party’s leadership compound. The theory went like this: Bo Xilai, with the support of the standing-committee member Zhou Yongkang, had been raising an army in Chongqing. Bo had organized the attack after the central government tried to penalize him. With no one to call inside the regime and no one coming out to dispel them, the rumors persisted for days. Around the same time, someone in Beijing crashed a Ferrari into a bridge. People on Sina Weibo wondered who had been driving. The word “Ferrari” was blocked.

The coup rumor may have been false, but soon another incredible story started circulating. A British man named Neil Heywood had died in Chongqing under mysterious circumstances the previous November, two and a half months before Wang Lijun’s flight. A Shanghai journalist named Yang Haipeng posted on Sina Weibo that Heywood and Bo Xilai were connected through Bo’s son, Bo Guagua (whose name translates as “Bo the very best” or, literally, “Bo melon melon”; cousins Bo peach peach and Bo fruit fruit round out the unusually named generational cohort). “Deceased: Guagua’s nanny,” Yang wrote.

Nationality: British. Place: Chongqing. Handled by: Wang Lijun. Cause of death: Wang was not allowed to investigate. The body was not preserved but instead immediately cremated.

This was the Sina Weibo rumor that would confirm everyone’s general faith in Sina Weibo rumors. A few days later, the United Kingdom requested an investigation into Heywood’s death. Soon the stories multiplied. Neil Heywood was a British spy. He was a nanny. He had been sleeping with Bo’s wife. He had been helping the family smuggle money out of the country.

I went to talk to Yang Haipeng in April amid a cloud of speculation about Neil Heywood. Yang didn’t want to speak on the phone, so we agreed to meet at a coffee shop. An hour before the meeting, he texted and told me to come to a different location, a place called the Shan Na Na, which turned out to be a massage parlor in the basement of a hotel. I walked in to find Yang already sitting there with his feet in a bucket of hot water, his pants rolled up to his knees. Two of his friends were laid out in the plush lounge chairs next to him, apparently sleeping as their feet were massaged. A giant flatscreen television mounted on the wall was tuned to CCTV News. “We just got back from hiking in Dali,” Yang explained, referring to a vacation destination in southern China. He lay back in his sofa chair and started chain smoking. “What do you want to know?”

Yang’s cell phone rang constantly; conversations with him were brief and full of hard-to-read grunts. “I am the best investigative journalist in China,” he told me. “Only, they won’t let me write anymore.”

These are some of the premium rumors Yang passed along to me: When Neil Heywood died, four policemen were first at the scene. “That was in November,” he told me. “In January, two of them were beaten to death.” A few days after Heywood’s body was discovered, Bo’s wife met with Heywood’s wife in a teahouse they had had emptied of people. Gu Kailai cried at that meeting. Yang wasn’t himself sure whether Bo and Gu had killed Heywood, but he said he wouldn’t be shocked to find out they had. “They were thugs,” he said. “The princelings are all thugs.”

At that point Yang got a call. He had just returned from Dali, he told the caller. He had no new information. He grunted a few times in assent, hung up the phone, then turned toward me. “They are meeting about Bo Xilai right now,” he said. “There will be an announcement tonight.”

The rumor had spread online that a seven o’clock news broadcast would include new information on Bo. It didn’t. (The farcical Twitter entity Relevant Organs took this opportunity to tweet, “This has been a test of the Emergency News System. Had this been actual news, we’d have deleted it.”) But around eleven o’clock a short message appeared on the Xinhua website.

As Comrade Bo Xilai is suspected of being involved in serious discipline violations, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) has decided to suspend his membership of the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau and the CPC Central Committee, in line with the CPC Constitution and the rules on investigation of CPC discipline inspection departments.

In another release published later that night, the Party vowed to re-investigate Heywood’s death “according to law” and said that Gu and “an orderly at Bo’s home” named Zhang Xiaojun had been detained. The next day, the New York Times ran a story quoting an anonymous source who said that Bo’s discipline violations included “mismanaging his family.”

The news of Gu Kailai’s arrest and the removal of Bo from his innumerable positions arrived with a corresponding barrage of affirmation from the state-run media. “Chongqing supports CPC decision to investigate Bo Xilai,” ran one headline. “Our nation is a nation of socialist rule of law and the authority of the law cannot be trampled,” said a commentary in the People’s Daily.

The moment Beijing started pushing its version of the story, things got even murkier. Neil Heywood, it turned out, was a freelance consultant, salesman, and fixer who had likely met Bo in Dalian. He told friends he had helped Bo Guagua get into Britain’s Harrow School. He drove a Jaguar (luxury cars have been a recurring motif in this scandal). At first, Heywood’s family all seemed convinced he had died of a heart attack.

As the scandal developed, reporters started tracking Gu’s business connections. Unnamed sources leaked outrageous stories about her behavior. She had demanded Heywood divorce his wife and swear loyalty to her, went one story. She had dressed up like a general following Heywood’s death, went another, and made an insane speech to a group of Chongqing police officials, claiming she was under secret orders from China’s Ministry of Public Security to protect the safety of Wang Lijun.

The trouble with the unattributed stories, however, was that no one could be sure what agenda their sources had. Many of those being interviewed were leaking information third- or fourthhand. Wang Kang, a Chongqing intellectual, businessman, and dissident, took risks to speak on the record to Western journalists, but admitted he had met Bo Xilai only once. Time magazine’s Hannah Beech noted that different sources had started repeating the same phrases to her over and over. And government censorship was becoming increasingly uneven, blocking the word “Ferrari” but allowing a Sina Weibo post that repeated a rumor about a cop having cut off a piece of Heywood’s corpse to keep as evidence. “In some cases it’s clear that the dissemination of information regarding the Bo scandal, as well as some so-called independent analysis from Chinese experts, has been orchestrated,” wrote Beech.

Another problem with the many stories coming out about Bo was that they were not, in the landscape of official corruption in China, out of the ordinary. His wife and family were getting rich off his political successes. But as soon as the window on Bo’s personal finances was opened, people started wondering about the families of other political leaders. Investigations by Bloomberg and the New York Times found Xi Jinping and Wen Jiabao’s relatives had grown rich during the two men’s tenures, investing in oil, life-insurance companies, and diamonds. Children of elite politicians have kept themselves busy running huge state-owned companies and private-equity funds and, occasionally, driving Ferraris into bridges. Many local governments had, like Chongqing, gone deep into debt making investments in infrastructure. When I asked Jiang Yanbei, the author of a double biography of Bo Yibo and Bo Xilai published in Hong Kong in 2009, whether his thoughts about Bo had changed, he said, “My opinion of Bo Xilai stands the same. If you say Bo is a schemer, then whoever wiped him out is a schemer as well.”

Amid the noise, however, were a few stories that offered a more complicated picture of Bo’s rapid decline. In April, the New York Times ran a story about Bo’s bad habit of wiretapping other officials. Citing nearly a dozen unnamed sources, the article reported that Bo had tapped a call between a visiting foreign official and Hu Jintao, China’s president. A Wall Street Journal story explored Bo’s ties to the military, reporting that a trip he made in February 2012 to a military base in Yunnan province had spooked Beijing.

Cheng Li had told me there were two groups who disliked Bo Xilai: Party leaders and liberal intellectuals. Looking at the flood in China’s state-run media of opinion pieces and calls for the military to pledge allegiance to the Party, it’s clear that Bo was more than just disliked — he was feared. A campaign promoting unity was deemed necessary. The vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission was quoted in Xinhua, telling troops that “the entire military needs to consciously serve and subordinate to the Party.” An op-ed in the People’s Daily, written by Yin Fanglong, head of the political department of the 2nd Artillery Corps, read,

Strict political discipline of party members and cadres should always be as taut as bowstrings. When something happens, first think of Party discipline and political impact. Do not carelessly guess or inquire about it. Do not listen. Do not believe. Do not pass on rumors.

As the months following Bo’s arrest passed, the pace of new leaks and speculation slowed. The Party began the process of closing the book on the case as quietly as possible, removing Bo piece by piece from all groups in which he had once been a member. “The Standing Committee of the 11th National People’s Congress (NPC) on Friday announced the termination of Bo Xilai’s post as the NPC deputy,” said an official story released through Xinhua in October. “The Seventh Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on Sunday endorsed a decision made by the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee to expel Bo Xilai from the CPC,” reported Xinhua in November.

In August, Bo’s wife had her day in court. She appeared so bloated and unrecognizable that people on Sina Weibo starting asking whether the woman standing there was Gu Kailai at all. Officials in China have been known to use body doubles. Gu pleaded guilty to poisoning Neil Heywood. The court was open only to approved attendees, but according to an unofficial report, the arguments presented included the claim that Heywood had physically kidnapped Gu’s child, Bo Guagua. She received a suspended death sentence, which typically translates to life in prison. Wang Lijun, who was tried in September, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for defection, abuse of power, and “bending the law for selfish ends.”

Bo, now that he is no longer a member of the Communist Party of China, should be next in line. Expelling him cleared the way for a criminal trial, and Bo stands to be the most prominent leader to face this kind of proceeding since the Gang of Four were tried in 1981. In the meantime, the power transition that Bo hoped to participate in has already gone forward, with only a few additional disruptions: the handover was delayed from October to November without explanation, and the man slated to take over leadership, Xi Jinping, disappeared for two weeks in September. Now that Xi is in power, it looks as if he is taking a few cues from Bo’s playbook, at least cosmetically. Under Xi, the Party has ordered officials at meetings to keep it short and “with no empty rhetoric or rigamarole.” On a recent tour of southern China, Xi repeatedly showed up to events without a necktie. Unlike Bo, however, Xi spent years keeping his head down. So little is known about his beliefs that some people are seeing hope of political reform in absent cravats.

Months before any of this came to pass, I visited Chongqing to see what remained of Bo’s legacy. The banners celebrating him were gone, but the evidence of his many campaigns was all over town. In a park near the city’s university district, signs designating specific areas for red singing were still up, and a few elderly people were still belting out songs. I saw buildings whose façades had recently received new coats of paint, whose balconies and air-conditioning units were covered with modern-looking wooden slats — all Bo Xilai, I was told. There were new trees, new traffic circles, new subway stations.

Following my arrival, a number of my appointments suddenly canceled; among the few who did not was Alan Zhang, a young copywriter who in 2003, as a university student, had started blogging about technology and had since moved on to national and university politics. He picked me up and drove me to a new luxury retail development with a Costa Coffee inside. He was thin and had dressed smartly to meet me, in black pants and a white button-down shirt. His teeth were prominent in a way that inclined him to purse his lips, adding to his generally thoughtful air. He believed that Bo had acquired too much power, that the Communist Party in general had too much power. “People have the right to go to the park and sing whatever song they like,” Zhang said. He told me that Bo, left unchecked, would have turned into a Nazi (this had become a pretty common thing to say).

There is a Chinese saying that you will hear often if you bring up politics: “The sky is high and the emperor far away.” It’s an aphorism normally invoked to suggest that leaders in Beijing are too removed to know what is going on locally, but people in Chongqing were using it to explain the lack of available information about Bo Xilai. For a moment, he had been the most accessible of Chinese politicians. He had been remarkable for sticking his head above the parapet. And while the Party’s fears of allowing the rise of another cult of personality were well founded, Bo offered people a chance to feel they were participating, if only a little. Then Wang Lijun fled and it turned out that Bo, or at least his wife, had been killing people, and that Bo had been no more candid than any other Party secretary.

As much as Zhang disapproved of him, though, it was Bo who had made him follow politics in the first place. “Before Bo Xilai, we didn’t know who our leaders were,” Zhang told me. “I don’t know what I talked about before then. I guess I paid attention to my hobbies.”

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

More from

| View All Issues |

October 2010

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now