Murder, Sex and Corruption The Battle for China's Most Powerful Office


By Erich Follath and

Part 3: Getting Ahead in Dalian

Dalian, Liaoning Province, a port city in northeastern China with an ugly television tower and typical 30-story hotel with a rotating restaurant on top.

Bo Xilai became mayor of Dalian in 1993, putting his stamp on the city for the next seven years.

During Bo's tenure, Dalian was cleaned up, almost as if it were being prepared to win the award for China's most beautiful city. Bo had imported ornamental grass planted everywhere, and he courted foreign investors, offering them special tax incentives. At the same time, he demonstrated his national consciousness by having a marble column erected to commemorate the return of the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong to China. And he indulged in a discipline that is frowned upon in a party normally programmed to value external modesty: self-dramatization. Bo, the beau in the tailored suit, liked to stroll along Dalian's waterside promenade, where a bronze relief with the footprints of local residents was created at his request. The footprints are all the same, except those of the mayor, which shine prominently with the color gold.

His father Bo Yibo, once persecuted, was rehabilitated in the late 1990s and became one of the party's "Eight Immortals," becoming a strong advocate for his son's career. An advisor poetically described Bo Xilai as "statesman-like as Henry Kissinger, as environmentally conscious as Al Gore, and almost as beloved by the public as Princess Diana." Nevertheless, his career trajectory was not as steep as the family had envisioned.

His beautiful and successful second wife, Gu Kailai, gradually became impatient. She too saw herself on the way to becoming a superstar. As an attorney, she won a spectacular civil case in the United States on behalf of several Dalian-area companies. Using the pseudonym "Horus," the Egyptian god of the sun, she wrote a book called "Uphold Justice in America." There is one sentence in the book that haunts her to this day: "In America, there are these endless stays of execution. We don't dither for long in China. We execute them."

Businesspeople admit today that they could only succeed in Dalian if they agreed to pay high commissions. According to their accounts, the mayor's wife acted as something of a toll collector, often using the services of a trusted go-between, British businessman Neil Heywood, who was living in Dalian. He also helped the power couple place their only son, Guagua, at two exclusive English boarding schools Papplewick and Harrow. To attend to his needs, Gu Kailai moved to England in 1999, where she was a regular guest in the most expensive five-star hotels.

Bo was promoted to governor of Liaoning Province, and in 2004 he became China's commerce minister. But as he confessed to friends, in his eyes these were nothing but consolation prizes. He was determined to enter the inner sanctum of power, and he was convinced that he would be appointed deputy premier, at the very least, following the 17th party congress in October 2007. Although he was appointed to the 25-member Politburo, he was not made a member of the more important nine-member Standing Committee. And the party, apparently wanting to keep him away from Zhongnanhai, sent him to the provinces once again, far from the center of national and international events, to the troubled southwestern city of Chongqing.

Bo knew that he would have to manage unusual feats to fulfill his dream of reaching the top. Sensational feats. It was then that he must have made up his mind to build Chongqing into a sort of anti-Beijing.

Zhongnanhai, at the Xinhua Men, or "Gate of New China." The words "Serve the People!" are inscribed in gold on a red screen wall immediately inside the gate in the original handwriting of the Great Chairman, words that were so often ignored, especially by Mao himself.

Xi Jinping arrived at the gate to the inner sanctum in 2007. Unlike the flamboyant Bo Xilai, the cautious Xi was accepted into the top echelon, the Standing Committee, after the 2007 convention. He was also put in charge of organizing the prestigious Beijing Olympics. China was clearly trying to show the Western world that it too could be transparent, saying, in effect: Look at us. We are more predictable than you are. This is what he looks like, our future leader.

After being appointed vice president in 2008, Xi made several trips abroad, to Latin America, Europe, including Germany, and Japan. Wherever he turned up, he played the cautious politician with a knack for building consensus. A report by the US Embassy in Beijing describes him as someone who, although of "average intelligence," is "a pragmatist, one who keeps his cards close to his chest before coldly placing his ace when the time is right." He's "a realist," and not a Chinese Gorbachev. According to the report, Xi is just as skeptical about democratic reforms as he is about a newly affluent class in China that he believes has lost its dignity.

Xi is reportedly a fan of the classic martial arts, as well as being inspired by Buddhist mysticism. Staying true to the party line, he intends to continue fighting the Dalai Lama as a "divider." In his rare free time, he likes to watch Hollywood movies, such as Steven Spielberg's World War II epic "Saving Private Ryan." He is also impressed by critical Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, fueling hopes of a touch of liberalism in the future. Otherwise, his goals are to avoid mistakes and spread harmony, which he achieves almost consistently. Only once, during a trip abroad in 2009, did he bluntly address Western critics, when he said that "some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do than engage in finger-pointing at us. I say to them: First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty."

And then there was that ill-fated trip in December 2010, when he met with his rival Bo Xilai in his city and praised him publicly. He would have been better off withholding praise for Bo. Although many high-ranking politicians have made the pilgrimage to Chongqing in recent years, President Hu and Premier Wen have not, probably because they recognized early on that something ominous was happening there. But even they couldn't have predicted that Bo, his wife and the British advisor would become embroiled in a murder case, and that there would be rumors of a coup against the party leadership and a spectacular trial that would bring turmoil to the party.

Chongqing, more than 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) away from the prosperous coastal region, is a city of more than 30 million people. The Chinese characters that make up the city's name mean "double celebration," and yet this city, bombed by the Japanese during World War II and, in 1945, the site of failed negotiations between Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, has little to celebrate in its history.

This is the place to which Bo was banished, and from the very beginning, he behaved like a second Mao there. He devised a brilliant concept that he hoped would make him immune to the party leaders who were not sympathetic to him: He demonstratively invoked the Great Chairman and his discipline and down-to-earth nature. He revived Mao-era culture and had citizens sing "red" songs in city parks. He also did something that was highly unusual for a senior Communist Party official: He mingled with the people, listening to their complaints about air pollution, the housing shortage, the lack of jobs and rampant organized crime.

Party boss Bo had trees planted along the city's avenues, invested hundreds of millions in low-income housing and rolled out the red carpet for foreign investors. Most of all, he portrayed himself as a relentless, squeaky-clean foe of organized crime. To support his cause, he brought in a former colleague and police expert from his Liaoning days: Wang Lijun, known as the "man with iron in his blood." Wang and Bo embarked on a relentless campaign against the "black evils" of extortion, illegal possession of firearms and protection rackets. Within a few years, more than 5,000 people in the city were arrested, and more than a dozen were executed.

The campaign was popular among the people, and even international guests like former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were pleased to make joint appearances with Bo. The "Chongqing model," with its brute assertiveness, was still being touted by many in 2011 as a possible alternative to the aloof style of the party in Beijing. Still, it is difficult to overlook the despotic way in which the Mao wannabe proceeded with the arrests, and how, with his campaign, he eliminated all semblance of the rule of law. There were also repeated rumors about the sexual excesses of the Chongqing party leaders, and about dozens of concubines.

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