Perspective — February 22, 2013, 9:00 am

On the Great Wall Game

Behind the scenes of recent scandals, Chinese government factions vie for influence

Bo Xilai. ©© Abode of Chaos

Bo Xilai. ©© Abode of Chaos (Flickr)

About a year ago, at nearly the same moment that Bo Xilai was being stripped of his position as Communist Party Secretary of Chongqing, a Ferrari crashed in Beijing. China is probably the world’s leader in luxury-vehicle crashes — earlier this year, someone in Guangzhou became the first person in the world to crash a Ferrari F12berlinetta. But this particular wreck warranted more scrutiny than others.

Photos of the crash soon appeared on China’s microblogging platform Sina Weibo, showing a black Ferrari 458 Spider that had been going so fast that, after ricocheting off a wall and striking a railing under Beijing’s Baofusi bridge, it split in half, killing its driver and seriously injuring two Tibetan women who were, according to rumor, naked in the backseat. Right after the wreck, censors began cracking down on online speculation about the driver’s identity. As Sina Weibo users tried to spread the photo of the wrecked car and offer theories on the identity of the driver, the word “Ferrari” was blocked, and posts mentioning the accident started to disappear. Before it took effect, some were suggesting that the driver was Ling Gu, the twenty-three-year-old son of Ling Jihua, President Hu Jintao’s chief of staff. But then a message appeared on Ling’s microblog telling everyone that he was fine, so the rumors settled on the son of another higher-up, Jia Qinglin, a member of China’s top governing body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, who has a close relationship with former Chinese president Jiang Zemin.

The Ferrari crash and subsequent cover-up were related to Bo Xilai’s demise for reasons that went beyond just timing. Both incidents threw a spotlight on divisions in the Chinese Communist Party. Both had roots in internal party conflicts that began in the 1980s and survived the “Beijing Consensus,” a model of economic development that required a united front from party members. And both took place in a new and unfamiliar context for China’s leaders — they were among the most significant political scandals to have taken place since the onset of China’s information revolution. 

To understand the threads uniting Bo and the crash, it’s useful to go back ten years, to the moment Hu Jintao took over from Jiang. Although Hu became the formal head of the party, Jiang maneuvered to remain chief of the military for another two years. Factions were understood to be lining up behind each man. Bo Xilai and his fellow princeling Xi Jinping were in Jiang’s camp.  

The two likeliest drivers of the crashed Ferrari were therefore from different factions, and both sides worked hard to control the available information. The blog post from Ling Gu turned out to have been penned after his death in the crash, possibly by his own father, in an attempt to displace public scrutiny. The cover-up continued until last September, when a group of party elders, led by Jiang, confronted Hu about the role his chief of staff had played in hiding the truth about his son’s death. But Jiang had held onto this information until months after the crash, at a moment when Hu was politically vulnerable. Ultimately, Ling Jihua lost his position in November and, with Hu Jintao weakened by the scandal, incoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping, a Jiang protégé, took the opportunity to consolidate his power on the way in.

The information and speculation surrounding the Bo Xilai case might prove more difficult for Xi to manipulate for political gain, however. The party has been slow to close the door on the scandal, and Bo has yet to go to trial. During his time as secretary of Chongqing, Bo built a large enough security apparatus that he is capable of implicating other members of the party elite in corruption if he’s feeling uncooperative (as appears to be the case). Rumors last month that his trial would take place in the city of Guiyang ended with a pack of journalists sitting outside a closed courthouse. The proceedings are now said to be scheduled for late March, after this year’s National People’s Congress.

Single Page
wrote “The Unraveling of Bo Xilai: China loses a populist star” for the March 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

More from Lauren Hilgers:

From the March 2013 issue

The Unraveling of Bo Xilai

China loses a populist star

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The Gatekeepers·

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Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

More than any other writer, Baldwin has become the model for black public-intellectual work. The role of the public intellectual is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse. For black intellectuals, that work has revolved around the persistence of white supremacy. Black abolitionists, ministers, and poets theorized freedom and exposed the hypocrisy of American democracy throughout the period of slavery. After emancipation, black colleges began training generations of scholars, writers, and artists who broadened black intellectual life. They helped build movements toward racial justice during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether through pathbreaking journalism, research, or activism.

Bloom, acrylic, ink, wood, and fabric on canvas, by David Shrobe © The artist. Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco
The Vanishing·

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On a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2017, a few months after the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, a group of neighbors gathered at Mar Mattai, a monastery founded in the fourth century. They unloaded baskets of food, and arranged themselves around a long table in a courtyard. A woman named Niser spread out a tablecloth and put down a plate of dolmas. “It’s a way of celebrating that we still exist,” she told me. More people were arriving—children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and distant relations—members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world who had not seen one another for three years.

Overlooking the village of Mergey from the old section of the Mar Mattai Monastery, Mount Maqlub, Iraq. All photographs from Iraq (October 2017) and Jerusalem (March 2018) by Nicole Tung (Detail)
Investigating Hate·

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Around three in the morning on a cold December Sunday, brothers José and Romel Sucuzhañay began to walk home from a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a cloudy night, only a few degrees above freezing, and the houses and stores lining their route wore impassive, nighttime guises—shades drawn, metal grates locked down. Romel had only recently arrived from Ecuador. José, a thirty-­one-year-old father of two, ran a successful real estate agency in the neighborhood. The two had spent the evening eating and drinking at a quinceañera at St. Brigid Church, and afterward, they stopped at a local bar called Christopher’s Palace. They were feeling the alcohol as they headed back to José’s apartment. When they realized that José had left his coat behind in the bar, Romel took off his jacket and draped it around his younger brother’s shoulders. They continued to walk up Bushwick Avenue, swaying a bit, arms around each other for warmth and ballast.

As they approached the corner of Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue, a red SUV stopped at the traffic light. “Check out those faggots!” the driver yelled out the window. José may have said something in reply. Very rapidly, a man jumped out of the passenger side door and smashed José on the head with a bottle, dropping him to the ground. He then turned to attack Romel. As Romel fled from the man down Kossuth, the driver exited the car, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat out of the vehicle, and began to beat José until someone emerged from the back seat and called him off. The driver was walking away when he saw some movement from José, a twitch of his hand or his leg sliding across the pavement—trying to rise, perhaps—and he strode back, straddled him, and raised the bat high in the air. He brought it down on José’s head, again and again, as if he were chopping wood.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae (Detail)
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After eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Bergis Jules found himself worrying not only over the horrors of the present, but also over how little of the present was likely to be preserved for the future. The best reporting on the aftermath in Ferguson was being produced by activists on Twitter, a notoriously ephemeral medium. Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, had the impulse to start saving tweets, but wasn’t sure how. “That whole weekend, watching things unfold, I thought, ‘This is a really amazing historical moment; we should think about capturing it,’ but I was just talking to myself,” he says. The following week, attending a Society of American Archivists conference in Washington, D.C., he voiced his fears en route to drinks at the hotel bar. He caught the ear of Ed Summers, a developer who just so happened to be the author of a Twitter archiving tool—and who promptly programmed it to va­cuum up #Ferguson tweets. Within two weeks, he had amassed more than 13 million.

Three weeks after the shooting, Summers blogged about the archive, which he and Jules were considering making public. Shortly thereafter, they received an inquiry from a data-mining company. When they pulled up the firm’s website, they read that its clients included the Department of Defense and, ominously, “the intelligence community.” What did the company want with the data? And what were the ethical implications of handing it over—perhaps indirectly to law enforcement—when the protesters’ tweets would otherwise evade collection? Using Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API), the code that developers use to call up Twitter data, anyone can sift through tweets that were posted in the past week, but older posts disappear from the API’s search function, even if they still exist out on the web. The data-mining company was too late to nab a swath of the #Ferguson tweets. (Twitter has since unveiled a “premium” API that allows access to older data, for a substantial fee.) Newly mindful of the risks, Jules and Summers waited almost a year to publish their cache.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

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