China will replace its leadership at the next Communist Party convention in early November. Despite well-laid plans, a bitter power struggle has emerged between two politicians. One, Xi Jinping, seems destined to become the country's next leader. The other, Bo Xilai, is in prison and his wife facing possible execution. Here, the story of a troubled Communist Party transition.
The United States has the White House, Russia the Kremlin, France the Elysée Palace and Germany the Federal Chancellery, but what the People's Republic of China has is a secret.
High, red walls shield the country's leaders in this mysterious place, armed security personnel are posted in front of heavily guarded buildings with poetic names like the "Hall of Purple Light," and hidden cameras monitor every step taken in the direction of China's inner sanctum. The complex, covering about one square kilometer (roughly 250 acres) near Tiananmen Square in the Beijing city center, is called Zhongnanhai. The buildings, set in landscaped grounds, are both the headquarters of the Communist Party and the seat of government.
If China has a heart, this is where it beats. But if there is one thing at work in Zhongnanhai, it's the country's brain. And while the traffic rages outside on nearby Chang'an Jie, a ceremonial avenue, insiders report that a ghostly quiet prevails inside the mysterious complex, almost like the silence in the eye of a typhoon -- and just as dangerous, as is now becoming evident in the dramatic struggle for power in this enormous country of 1.35 billion people.
The grounds were once part of the Forbidden City, where emperors, concubines and eunuchs spun their court intrigues. Some of the buildings stem from China's feudal days, while a number of gray, functional buildings were added after the Communist victory and proclamation of the People's Republic in 1949. Revolutionary leader Mao Zedong was conscious of the symbolic importance of the place, and it took months before he felt at home there. Sleeping in the bedrooms where emperors once slept meant donning the cloak of absolute power and claiming the Mandate of Heaven. It was as enticing as it was dangerous.
China's Ascent Undisputed
To this day, the party hasn't dared to engage in an open discussion of excesses, like the Cultural Revolution in 1966 and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, or even to attempt a re-evaluation of the events of the day. Civil rights activists who openly deplored the government's lack of action in this respect ended up in prison. Politically speaking, there is little evidence of liberalization.
On the other hand, China's phenomenal economic ascent is undisputed. Its gross domestic product has increased by about 30-fold in the last three decades, and the Chinese economy has already surpassed Germany and Japan and will soon overtake the United States. "Never before in history has so much wealth been created in such a short time," says Roderick MacFarquhar, an expert on China who teaches at Harvard University.
And no other country has accumulated anything even close to China's foreign-currency reserves. If Beijing wanted to, it could buy up all the firms listed on Germany's DAX index of blue chip companies, and to do so it would only have to spend about one-third of its reserves of $3 trillion (2.28 trillion).
But China's rulers want more than that. They want to see their country acknowledged as a model, and as an alternative to the Western form of government. And indeed, politicians in Africa and Latin America (as well as many business leaders in Europe) have warmed to the idea of unfettered capitalism without elections and devoid of other, democratic elements that supposedly stand in the way of planning certainty. In essence, what the Chinese model offers is that of a mild dictatorship with one-party rule, in which the best managers prevail, but only after productive and sometimes contentious discussions over the best approach.
A 'Consensus System'
According to United States diplomats whose classified reports from Beijing were published through WikiLeaks, a "consensus system in which members can exercise veto power" but then feel committed to the joint decision prevails in the Politburo, which consists of 24 men and one woman. There is nothing the party fears more than luan, or chaos, and nothing it preaches more staunchly than hexie shehui, or harmonious society. The body that is primarily responsible for achieving hexie shehui is the Central Politiburo Standing Committee, which meets in the southern part of the Zhongnanhai sanctuary. The nine-member committee is China's most powerful political entity, and both the president and the premier are recruited from its ranks.
Once a decade, the party feels obligated to change its leadership and rejuvenate itself. That point has now been reached once again as both President and General Secretary Hu Jintao, 69, and Premier Wen Jiabao, 70, withdraw from the top echelon. Their goal is to make room for younger leaders and, in the process, to show their people and the rest of the world that the People's Republic is a model country that can successfully complete a harmonious transition. In 2012, this transition coincides with a critical decision on the country's future direction, important to both China and the rest of the world: Should the economy, which has lost some steam in recent months, continue to be privatized while the overall system is democratized? Or will the Communist Party opt for more of the same, and even the flexing of its military muscle and possibly an armed conflict with Japan? And in light of recent scandals, is China increasingly being run like a business with mafia-like structures?
In the eye of the storm are two of China's best-known politicians, both of them highly respected Politburo members and recognized internationally as future leaders of the global power: Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping.
For the two men, the steep path to the top seemed all but certain in early 2012. They were standing at the last station before ascending to the summit of power, and everything else was merely a formality. Bo, 63, was seen as a possible new member of the Standing Committee, while Xi, 59, was expected to assume the highest offices in the country and party. Theirs were storybook careers, as uncannily similar as their life stories. Both men were so-called "princelings," whose fathers had already held top spots in the Communist Party hierarchy. Each man had been divorced and then married a second wife who was known throughout the country. Both men sent their children to Harvard. And both are from families that have amassed astonishingly large fortunes worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
But their respective fates have diverged widely since the spring of 2012, when Bo was stripped of his official positions and ejected from the party. Today he is being held in a secret location to await his criminal trial. Xi, on the other hand, will in all probability be appointed to the top positions at the highly anticipated party congress in early November.
But Xi's triumph will be overshadowed by a scandal that, like so many others, speaks volumes about corruption in the inner circle. It wasn't long ago, in December 2010, that Xi paid a visit to Bo, the then party leader in the southwestern city of Chongqing, where he praised his unconventional approach in the megacity as "outstanding." And although all images and quotes from the meeting have since been deleted by the government media, they appear in blogs everywhere.
Will Xi, the master tactician, address the scandal at the center of power in his speech? What sort of language will the new top dog use to distance himself from the offences of his former fellow party member, a man as colorful as he was popular, without harming the Communist Party? And could Bo, like his wife, face execution? Or will some of his offences be swept under the rug, because of the risk of exposing the failings of the power elite?
The lives of both Xi and Bo symbolize the rise and fall of political fortunes in China. They are two lives that dramatically illustrate the wide disparity that still exists today between pretense and reality in a country that's become an economic miracle. And they also demonstrate how thin the glue is that holds China together, and how difficult it will be to govern this country in difficult times of declining growth, social tensions and an aging population.
Xi Jinping's Rise in the PartyShaanxi Province, northern China -- a cave dwelling dug into the hilly, greyish-yellow loess landscape.
Very few people in China are more familiar with future party leader Xi Jinping than his old friend Lü Housheng. He proudly shows us yellowed photos in which he is posing with Xi Jinping. "He was friendly and helpful, but he was also lonely," says Lü. The boy from Beijing, he says, would stay up all night reading Marx and Mao by candlelight. "There wasn't anything else to read at the time," Lü points out.
The dwelling where Xi lived back then is a modest, three-by-four-meter (130-square-foot) room, which is now used for storage. At the time, Xi, the son of a high-ranking party member, witnessed, within his own family, how quickly and deeply one could fall in the Mao dictatorship. When Xi was nine, the Great Chairman demoted his father, who had been head of the Communist Party's propaganda division in the 1950s, because of his alleged lack of loyalty. He was 15 when his father was sent to the prison, during the Cultural Revolution.
The party banished son Xi Jinping to the countryside, where he had to work long hours in the fields. Looking back on this period of unusually strenuous physical labor, Xi said: "It was a time of experiments, instructive for me, but generally a failure for the nation." The fact that his parents were strict in better times probably helped him to endure the hardships. At home, he was forced to wear hand-me-downs from his sisters, and he even painted their pink shoes black to avoid embarrassment.
The rural drudgery continued for six years. He wanted to get out and have a career, and in return he was willing to compromise with his family's tormentors. He submitted one application after the next to be accepted into the party, and the 10th application was finally approved. At 22, the ambitious young Xi was allowed to return to Beijing, where he was enrolled in the city's renowned Tsinghua University. He studied chemistry, law and Marxism, a strange mix of subjects. His degree helped him obtain a job with the military commission. Armed with connections in the Communist Party and the army, Xi was able to plan for the future. He was competent, prudent and didn't rub anyone the wrong way.
Even after leaving Shaanxi Province, Xi stayed in touch with his friend. "He's a loyal man," says Lü, leveling the rickety table at which the two friends used to sit. "He still asks about me regularly. He is someone who doesn't give up."
Beijing, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital where high-ranking functionaries live.
People in their fifties say reverently that anyone who goes to school here is learning "at Mao's court." Bo Xilai, son of the legendary Communist Party revolutionary and Finance Minister Bo Yibo, is part of this elite, the sort of people who go swimming in a pool reserved for the families of party officials, and who have access to food items that are scarce in China like chocolate and duck meat. Whether the young man met his later rival, Xi Jinping, during those days is unknown.
Bo had a different personality. Instead of being levelheaded like Xi, Bo was an adventurer. When the Cultural Revolution began, he was 17 and enthusiastically joined the Red Guard, which, with the blessing of the Great Chairman, was permitted to destroy the schools and berate figures of authority. The excited young man even reportedly denounced his father during a rally.
His mother, who died, was likely murdered by the Red Guard, and his father was thrown into prison and tortured. Bo's activities didn't do him any good, and he was forced to atone for his family's "revisionism." He languished in prison and in a labor camp for five years, and then went to work in a factory.
The tide turned and his family was rehabilitated when Bo was 29. His father rose to the position of deputy premier and forgave his son, making him his protégé. Bo was permitted to attend university. Unlike so many other top young officials, he didn't choose to study engineering or Marxism, but history and journalism.
He received an intimate look inside the inner sanctum at an early age. His first job took him behind the walls of Zhongnanhai, where he worked in the office of the Central Committee. Zhongnanhai would become both the object of his dreams and the focus of all of his risky machinations.
Xiamen, a rich and mysterious port city in Fujian Province, founded during the Ming Dynasty and humiliated by the British in the Opium War.
The sound of piano-playing drifts from colonial villas (the best pianists traditionally teach in Xiamen), while ships' sirens boom from the busy port. Money and smuggling have always been at home in Xiamen. Xi Jinping was the city's deputy mayor for 32 years -- a promising job.
He skillfully maneuvered through all potential pitfalls, demanding respect for the Communist Party but avoiding confrontation with the business world. He didn't dare tackle cronyism and promote necessary reforms, such as making the courts more independent. His rehabilitated father was more progressive. As the governor of Guangdong Province, he expedited the economic reform process in the early 1980s more decisively than his son did in Xiamen.
At a relatively early age, Xi was able to gain an impression of the United States. He went there for the first time in 1985, as a member of a delegation, and was invited to stay with a farming family in Iowa. He seems to have enjoyed his time there and was enthusiastic about how friendly the Americans were. When he returned to the United States in 2012, he made a point of visiting his host family once again, a gesture that helped him score points in the West. However, his statements, both then and today, do not suggest that he was particularly impressed by the democratic system.
A Test of Virtue
Xi eventually became governor of Zhejiang Province in eastern China. There he also attracted attention through his efforts not to attract too much attention. Although he often wrote about "innovation" in his column in the local party newspaper, aside from his general interest in private enterprise, which he wanted to involve in major government projects, contemporary witnesses say that his biggest concern was corruption among officials. "For small advantages like being taken out to eat, they forget their principles," Xi wrote. "And during the subsequent singing and dancing, they lose their propriety."
The party, as if to put him to an especially rigorous test one more time prior to a final ascent to its Mount Olympus, sent him to Shanghai in 2007. The city of sin had just lived up to its dubious reputation, when a scandal brought down the local party leader.
The cautious Xi sensed that there were traps everywhere. When he was offered an official residence in the former French quarter, he turned it down and moved into a modest apartment instead. When he was offered a special train for an official trip to a neighboring province, he chose to travel in a minivan instead. During his seven-month tenure as party chief in China's commercial capital, Xi lived up to his clean reputation, not showing any weaknesses, but also not embarking on any political reforms. He was a sound administrator, someone who was not to be led into temptation. Only one thing about Xi Jinping is glamorous and colorful: his second wife Peng Liyuan, 49, a soprano with a national career performing patriotic songs like "My Brother Soldiers."
As a member of the dance ensemble of the People's Liberation Army, she is also politically useful to her husband. She holds a civilian rank comparable to that of a major general, and she is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. The couple sent their daughter Mingze, an only child, to Harvard, where, unlike the son of Bo Xilai, she is enrolled under a pseudonym and keeps a low profile.
Getting Ahead in DalianDalian, 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.
Party Leaders Grow Increasingly NervousIn 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.
The Myth of Superiority Has Been ShakenThe party is extremely nervous in the run-up to its 18th congress. Beijing's Internet censors have now placed terms like "Bo Xilai," "coup" and even "truth" on their hit list. On the other hand, the Communist Party leaders buckle after almost every public protest. For instance, the planned construction of factories in Sichuan and Jiangsu Provinces, which were suspected of being particularly egregious environmental polluters, was stopped after demonstrations against the projects.
Suddenly the party is trying to close ranks with the people. It suffered a serious setback in the Bo affair, and the myth of the superiority of the authoritarian Chinese system has been shaken. The People's Republic possesses no constitutional mechanisms to replace its leaders in a transparent way, which it has just demonstrated in painful ways to its increasingly cynical population. In the long term, the supposed competitive advantage of one-party rule could become the biggest element of uncertainty, detrimental for China and the entire world.
Zhongnanhai, the stronghold of the party's strategists.
Xi Jinping is preparing to assume power. He does this in closed-door meetings, and he has turned down tête-à-têtes with visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and with the leaders of Singapore and Denmark. There have already been rumors that Xi may have been in a car accident, that he suffered a heart attack or may even have been the victim of an attack. Or was it a sports injury or a "back ailment," as the blocking of the term on the Internet seems to suggest? The government does not comment on the rumors. So much for the "era of transparency" the Communist Party has announced.
Nevertheless, there is every indication that the turbulence is over. Xi has apparently prevailed, even though he would probably have preferred a trouble-free "coronation party congress." In the last few years, ever since his rise to power has been seemingly a fait accompli, he has made it clear to all of his supporters to say as little as possible about him. He wants to make sure that he isn't a target for anyone.
According to a Chinese proverb, "If a man becomes powerful, even his chicken and his dog go to heaven," probably because it has always been easier to do business in China with the right guanxi, or connections. As far back as 2004, during an anti-corruption conference, Xi cautioned his fellow officials: "Rein in your spouses, children, relatives, friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain."
But the official modesty directive doesn't seem to have hit entirely home with his own extended family. In late June, the American business newswire Bloomberg published a detailed list of the immense assets of Xi's relatives. Even though Bloomberg was by no means claiming that Xi had lined his own pockets, the state censors in Beijing immediately blocked access to the information.
The designated new party leader demonstrates a modest lifestyle to his people. "We should never forget that we are only servants of the people," he has said. A US intelligence report describes him as "incorruptible," and notes that he has no interest in drinking and having affairs, the pastimes of many party officials. On the other hand, the report states that Xi is firmly convinced that only a small elite can preserve China's stability and lead the country to new glory, namely the children of its communist founding fathers, the "princelings" or "legitimate heirs" to power, and that "they deserve to rule China."
Can Xi Accumulate Greater Power than Other World Leaders?
In his speech for the 18th party congress, he will likely focus on the battle against corruption. The bitter conflict with Bo could even have increased his influence and his political latitude. No one will dare to present alternatives to Xi, in terms of both content and personnel. Ironically, the consensus-driven politician Xi Jinping could accumulate as much power as perhaps only Mao has had before him -- and perhaps more power than any other politician in the world.
Few new foreign policy initiatives are to be expected of him. He sees China on a level playing field with the United States, and he is suspicious of Washington's new strategic orientation, which includes strengthening the US presence in the Pacific. This is why Xi places the greatest value on Europe, especially Germany, as a possible strategic partner. After their talks in Beijing in late August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly characterized Xi as "open and likeable." Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, praises Xi, saying: "I would put him in the Nelson Mandela class of persons, a person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings to affect his judgment."
He could reverse China's strict one-child policy. Perhaps he will permit new, local experiments with free elections. The biggest optimists do not rule out that he could even permit an open discussion of the Tiananmen Square massacre, especially given that his father condemned the military action there. Perhaps his rise to power will also spell freedom for Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned winner of the Nobel Peace Prize -- and for some of the country's civil rights activists who were arrested under scandalous conditions and for outrageous reasons.
But perhaps Xi Jinping's most important task will be to call off the increasingly self-confident generals, some of whom have seriously proposed teaching neighboring countries Japan and Vietnam, which are competing with China for mineral resources in the Pacific, a military "lesson." He will have to kick-start the slowing economy to achieve growth of significantly more than 8 percent, at least next year. Eight percent is the margin at which China creates enough jobs to avoid social unrest. Xi will also need to take steps to close the widening gap between rich and poor, and to introduce a convincing retirement concept for the country's aging population. Finally, he will have to reconcile the rebellious minorities in problem areas Tibet and Xinjiang with the central government once again.
In his films to date, Spielberg has two major heroes. And while Xi may like Private Ryan, but it will take a superhuman like E.T. to do the job he is about to be given.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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