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


By Erich Follath and

Part 4: Party Leaders Grow Increasingly Nervous

In conversations with his closest friends, Bo allegedly made no secret of his belief that he saw himself as an alternative to Xi Jinping. Because of his background and his Maoist popularity, the charismatic politician felt that he was untouchable, which made party leaders in Beijing increasingly nervous. They discreetly investigated Bo's surroundings, and in doing so discovered things that left them speechless. For instance, Bo had recorded telephone conversations during visits by senior Beijing officials, including, according to insider information corroborated by the New York Times, a tense conversation between the head of the Beijing anti-corruption agency and party leader Hu Jintao in August 2011.

At that time, Bo apparently had no inkling of the coming political storms, and he was preoccupied with family problems. Photos of his son Guagua, 24, together with young women and looking disheveled and apparently drunk at parties had appeared on the Internet. He was driving a Porsche and living in a luxury apartment, where he paid almost as much in monthly rent as a Chinese migrant worker earns in a year, and about a quarter of his father's annual salary. The discussion over how his son was paying for all of this was potentially damaging to Bo, and he told his wife to bring Guagua back to his senses. But she was already a bundle of nerves by this time, perhaps because of rumors that the family had moved millions of dollars abroad.

According to later testimony by her underlings in Chongqing, Gu Kailai practically maintained a royal household in Chongqing. She harassed her employees and her business partner, Heywood, accusing the Brit of trying to harm their son. And indeed, the British businessman allegedly threatened to expose illegal deals unless she agreed to pay him commissions on the transfers of funds abroad. Heywood was becoming a problem for the family. More than a troublemaker, he was a potential career killer.

An Unscrupulous Murder

Gu Kailai summoned him to a meeting at the Lucky Holiday Hotel, on a hill outside Chongqing, in November 2011. Heywood told friends that he didn't feel good about the meeting. But his business partner of many years was about to have her 53rd birthday, and he couldn't turn her down. What transpired in the slightly run-down rooms, with their mustard-colored wallpaper, can only be described as an unscrupulous murder. Chongqing's first lady, with the help of a subordinate, allegedly got Heywood drunk and put poison in one of his drinks.

The official explanation for the 41-year-old's sudden death is heart failure, and the body is quickly cremated. The problem would have been eliminated if Police Chief Wang hadn't become suspicious. It is unclear whether the previously unscrupulous confidant of party chief Bo had moral qualms, was in a dispute with Bo's wife or was simply trying to blackmail his boss. In any case, Wang confronted Bo Xilai with an expert report in early 2012. He had had blood samples taken from the body and had gathered evidence suggesting Heywood was murdered.

But Bo would have nothing of Wang's talk of a murder plot. He shouted at him, flew into a rage, hit him in the face -- and threatened to fire the police chief and place him under surveillance. An internal Communist Party intrigue had widened into a murder plot against a foreigner, and it was now the biggest scandal in recent Chinese history -- with national and even global consequences that Beijing's leaders still don't have entirely under control today.

A Police Chief Seeks Political Asylum

Wang fled from Chongqing in early February, knowing that there was no independent government authority in the People's Republic to which he could entrust himself. His only chance was the nearest US Consulate in Chengdu, 300 kilometers (186 miles) away. He also knew that the secret information he had obtained -- about the murder and the secret recordings -- was so explosive that it could shake the power structure throughout China. He apparently expected to receive political asylum in return for divulging his information.

But Wang was bitterly disappointed when he realized that the Western superpower was unwilling to become involved in Chinese internal affairs. Chinese security forces had surrounded the consulate within hours of Wang's appearance there. The date was Feb. 6, 2012, only a few days before Vice President Xi was scheduled to make his first visit to the White House as the designated party leader. In tense high-level telephone conversations, Washington and Beijing managed to prevent the Wang affair from developing into a serious diplomatic crisis. Obama met with Xi, and Wang surrendered to Chinese authorities. On Sept. 24, a court in Chengdu sentenced Wang, celebrated for so many years as a "brilliant policeman," to 15 years in prison.

Bo Xilai made one last, desperate attempt to change his destiny. He flew to Kunming, the city where the unit his dead father once commanded is stationed, and tried to score publicity points by commemorating his "revolutionary ancestors." But when he couldn't manage to gain the support of a single battalion, Bo decided that if he were going down, he would do it in style.

In early March, he went to Beijing to attend a parliamentary session, and publicly accused his enemies, without naming them, of "spilling dirt" about him. On March 14, when Bo posed for a last group photo with his fellow Politburo members, he seemed distracted, staring at the ceiling as if he were waiting for a last-minute confirmation of the "Mandate of Heaven." Security forces were already waiting discreetly in the wings of the Great Hall of the People to take him away -- away from everything he had tried so hard to achieve: a spot in the limelight, Zhongnanhai and Mao's legacy.

Chongqing today, a dimly lit bar in the downtown area called "Hongge Ting," or "Hall of the Red Songs."

Small groups of patrons are still defiantly singing the old Mao songs, the songs that everyone was singing only months ago. "Bo lives forever in our hearts," whispers one of the men, quickly adding that he doesn't want to be quoted. The old slogans have disappeared from the streets outside, where almost everything that could be reminiscent of the former party chief has been removed. The staff has been replaced at the Lucky Holiday Hotel, and the scene of the crime, Room 1605 in Building 16, has been cleaned. There are surveillance cameras everywhere.

Bo, who is being held in a secret location, will face charges of abuse of power, corruption and "improper sexual relationships with a number of women." The party is determined not to allow Bo to get in the way of Xi Jinping's promotion at the party congress, and decisions on the fate of his toppled rival will only be announced afterwards.

"It's completely inappropriate to take pity on Bo Xilai. He would have turned the country into a police state," says attorney Li Zhuang. He knows what he's talking about. He represented defendants in Chongqing, and he advised one of his clients to revoke a confession he had made under torture. Bo's officials told the lawyer to refrain from making his incendiary statements against the authority of the state. But Li refused to be intimated, and he was even put on trial himself and sentenced to 18 months in prison. "Bo's thugs tortured me in prison, and I'm sure that they did it on his express orders."

The attorney is pleased that the Mao wannabe is now being put on trial. "China was spared some serious problems as a result of Bo's fall from grace."

Hefei, the uneventful capital of Anhui Province in eastern China, was the birthplace of Bao Zheng, who was reputed to have cleaned up corruption and rendered fair verdicts in the 11th century, during the Song Dynasty.

But that isn't the reason the highly anticipated trial of Bo's wife took place there in August. Rather, it was because the city is so far away from Beijing and Chongqing, and because its public prosecutor's office is considered to be particularly compliant.

The farce lasted only seven hours. There was no hearing of evidence, and it took 20 minutes to read the grounds for the judgment. Gu Kailai, her face swollen and wearing a gray outfit, confessed to everything and assumed full responsibility for the murder. Her government-appointed lawyers noted that there were mitigating circumstances, namely her concerns that Heywood was "threatening" her son, and they portrayed her as a nervous wreck who could barely be held accountable for her actions. Her husband's name did not come up in the trial, and little mention was made of the nature of the "business dispute." There was also no mention of the purchases of luxury real estate in London's South Kensington neighborhood, which were made by Golden Map, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands.

A few days later, Gu Kailai was sentenced to death, but the sentence was suspended for two years. It was a relatively mild verdict, because such suspended sentences are usually commuted to life imprisonment. In her closing statement, the defendant politely expressed her gratitude for the "humanitarian care" she had received, in words reminiscent of the show trials Stalin loved. Perhaps the party hopes that her story could end like that of Mao's last wife, Jiang Qing. Sentenced to death as the leader of the "Gang of Four," she committed suicide a decade later after being released from prison for health reasons. In doing so, she spared the Communist Party many a discussion over her husband's complicity in crimes against the people.

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