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.

Share
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

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2020

Click Here to Kill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vicious Cycles

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Oceans Apart

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Forty-Year Rehearsal

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Whale Mother

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Click Here to Kill·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a sunny July day in 2018, Alexis Stern was sitting behind the wheel of the red Ford Fusion her parents had given her the previous year when she’d learned to drive. Robbie Olsen, the boy she’d recently started dating, was in the passenger seat. They were in the kind of high spirits unique to teenagers on summer vacation with nothing much to do and nowhere in particular to go. They were about to take a drive, maybe get some food, when Stern’s phone buzzed. It was the police. An officer with the local department told her to come down to the station immediately. She had no idea what the cops might want with her. “I was like, am I going to get arrested?” she said.

Stern had graduated from high school the month before, in Big Lake, Minnesota, a former resort town turned exurb, forty miles northwest of the Twin Cities. So far she had spent the summer visiting family, hanging out with her new boyfriend, and writing what she describes as “action-packed and brutal sci-fi fantasy fiction.” At sixteen, she’d self-published her first novel, Inner Monster, about a secret agent named Justin Redfield whose mind has been invaded by a malevolent alter ego that puts the lives of his loved ones at risk. “It isn’t until his inner demon returns that he realizes how much trouble he really is in,” the synopsis reads. “Facing issues with his girlfriend and attempting to gain control of his dark side, the tension intensifies. Being the best agent comes at a price, a price of kidnapping, torture and even death.

Article
Oceans Apart·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I had been in Domoni—an ancient, ramshackle trading town on the volcanic island of Anjouan—for only a few summer days in 2018 when Onzardine Attoumane, a local English teacher, offered to show me around the medina. Already I had gotten lost several times trying to navigate the dozens of narrow, seemingly indistinguishable alleyways that zigzagged around the old town’s crumbling, lava-rock homes. But Onzardine had grown up in Domoni and was intimately familiar with its contours.

Stocky in build, with small, deep-set eyes and neatly trimmed stubble, Onzardine led me through the backstreets, our route flanked by ferns and weeds sprouting from cracks in the walls and marked by occasional piles of rubble. After a few minutes, we emerged onto a sunlit cliff offering views of the mustard-colored hills that surround the town, dotted with mango, palm, and breadfruit trees. We clambered down a trail, past scrawny goats foraging through piles of discarded plastic bottles, broken flip-flops, and corroded aluminum cans, toward a ledge where a dozen young men were waiting for the fishing boats to return to shore, gazing blankly out across the sea.

Article
Vicious Cycles·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is what I feared, that she would speak about the news . . . about how her father always said that the news exists so it can disappear, this is the point of news, whatever story, wherever it is happening. We depend on the news to disappear . . .
—Don DeLillo, “Hammer and Sickle”

What a story. What a fucking story.
—Dean Baquet, on the election of Donald Trump

a circular conversation

What is the news? That which is new. But everything is new: a flower blooms; a man hugs his daughter, not for the first time, but for the first time this time . . . That which is important and new. Important in what sense? In being consequential. And this has been measured? What? The relationship between what is covered in the news and what is consequential. Not measured. Why? Its consequence is ensured. Ensured. . . ? It’s in the news. But then who makes it news? Editors. Editors dictate consequence? Not entirely. Not entirely? It matters what people read and watch—you can’t bore them. Then boredom decides? Boredom and a sense of what’s important. But what is important? What’s in the news.

Article
The Forty-Year Rehearsal·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On the evening of May 8, just after eight o’clock, Kate Valk stepped onstage and faced the audience. The little playhouse was packed with hardcore fans, theater people and artists, but Kate was performing, most of all, for one person, hidden among them, a small, fine-boned, black-clad woman, her blond-gray hair up in a clip, who smiled, laughed, and nodded along with every word, swaying to the music and mirroring the emotions of the performers while whispering into the ear of the tall, bearded fellow who sat beside her madly scribbling notes. The woman was Elizabeth LeCompte—known to all as Liz—the director of the Wooster Group, watching the first open performance of the company’s new piece, Since I Can Remember.

It had been a tense day, full of opening-night drama. Gareth Hobbs, who would be playing a leading role, had been sick in bed for days with a 103-degree fever, and he’d only arrived at the theater, still shaky, at three-thirty that afternoon. During the final closed rehearsal, performer Suzzy Roche fell on her elbow, then felt faint and had to lie prone while her colleagues fanned her and fetched ice. At one point, Erin Mullin, the stage manager as well as a performer, shouted: “We have one hour left, and we’re on page eight of fifty!” Not to mention that the piece still had no ending.

Article
Election Bias·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the spring of 2018, Tequila Johnson, an African-American administrator at Tennessee State University, led a mass voter-registration drive organized by a coalition of activist groups called the Tennessee Black Voter Project. Turnout in Tennessee regularly ranks near the bottom among U.S. states, just ahead of Texas. At the time, only 65 percent of the state’s voting-age population was registered to vote, the shortfall largely among black and low-income citizens. “The African-American community has been shut out of the process, and voter suppression has really widened that gap,” Johnson told me. “I felt I had to do something.”

The drive generated ninety thousand applications. Though large numbers of the forms were promptly rejected by election officials, allegedly because they were incomplete or contained errors, turnout surged in that year’s elections, especially in the areas around Memphis and Nashville, two of the cities specifically targeted by the registration drive. Progressive candidates and causes achieved notable successes, capturing the mayor’s office in heavily populated Shelby County as well as several seats on the county commission. In Nashville, a local measure was passed introducing a police-accountability board.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today