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China scandal unlikely to upend Communist Party's apple cart

Analysts say Bo Xilai's removal has more to do with personal style than political substance.

April 11, 2012|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • The skyline of Chongqing, in southwestern China. Until their sudden downfall, Bo Xilai and wife Gu Kailai dominated politics and business in the massive metropolis.
The skyline of Chongqing, in southwestern China. Until their sudden downfall,… (Alexander F. Yuan, Associated…)

BEIJING — Each plot twist roils Chinese politics a little more. What began with the political purge of Communist Party heavyweight Bo Xilai has rippled into allegations of murder against his wife, turning a power struggle within an opaque leadership clique into the most public scandal in China in decades.

But the chances of it having the potency to alter China's political and economic path appear slim.

Until their sudden fall, Bo, 62, and wife Gu Kailai, 53, were a telegenic power couple frequently described as "Kennedyesque," dominating politics and business in the massive metropolis of Chongqing.

Bo was the ruling party's secretary in a city of 32 million where he led a Maoist revival movement and had expectations of rising to a top national post. The alluring Gu built a business empire of interests at home and abroad.

Last month, Bo lost his job, fired over what was described in a Communist Party statement released through state media this week as "serious discipline problems." The statement also said Gu and a family aide were under arrest as suspects in the November death of Neil Heywood, a 41-year-old British businessman and a longtime family friend.

The party's text referred to her as Bo Gu Kailai, using her husband's family name, which is not the custom for Chinese women — a sign, some say, of the authorities' desire to taint them both with the murder charge.

The spectacular defenestration of such a highflying politician with a base in the rising Maoist new-left movement has led to speculation about possible policy schisms within the Communist Party leadership. But many observers say Bo's removal has more to do with personal style than political substance.

"It wasn't what he did but how he did it," said Jin Zhong, a political analyst based in Hong Kong. "He was too extroverted."

His demise certainly occurred at a sensitive time. The Communist Party is naming a new leadership lineup for the upcoming 18th party congress in October, with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao retiring and seven of nine coveted seats on the Politburo Standing Committee up for grabs.

Bo had been openly lobbying for one of those jobs based on the deep support he had built in Chongqing, where his new-left movement had replaced commercial television programs with Red Army songs and dances, sent millions of people text messages with quotations from Mao's "Little Red Book'' and encouraged "red song" contests.

His critics complained it resembled the Cultural Revolution, Mao's disastrous purge of the intelligentsia from 1966 to 1976.

But even Bo's sympathizers on the new left say his downfall is unrelated to ideological differences overChina'spolitical path.

"It looks like a very simple case of murder; this might be something out of a Hollywood movie, but it doesn't necessarily indicate anything about what direction China is headed," said Sima Nan, one of the most prominent Chinese intellectuals associated with the new left.

Indeed, analyst Jin believes that Bo or his wife could have gotten away with murder had Bo remained in good standing with the top leadership.

"Hu and Wen were determined to take him down completely," Jin said.

"If they wanted to protect Bo, they would have separated him from his wife's actions," he added, referring to Gu being publicly identified by her husband's name.

British expatriate Heywood, who worked as a business consultant, was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room Nov. 15. He had lived in China for more than a decade, spoke Chinese and was married to a Chinese woman.

Heywood at one point was an advisor to the carmaker Aston Martin; at another he helped Chinese companies do initial public offerings abroad. He also was listed as an advisor to a British intelligence firm, Hakluyt & Co.

He met Bo and his family in the 1990s, when Bo was mayor of the east coast city of Dalian. Some news reports have indicated Heywood helped the Bo family transfer money abroad, steered clients to Gu's law firm and assisted in getting the couple's son into Harrow, an elite British boarding school Heywood attended.

But the relationship may have soured over business differences, according to Chinese state media, which claimed that Heywood had a "financial dispute" with Bo's family.

The initial cause of death was ruled excessive alcohol consumption and the body was cremated.

This week, a French radio station, RFI, reported that Heywood's widow met with Bo's wife after his death and agreed not to press for an investigation.

Bo has not been seen in public since he was stripped of his Chongqing job last month. This week, the party also took away his seat on the wider 25-seat politburo. The last time the party purged one of the elite in such public fashion was in 2006, when Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu was charged with corruption.

Still, said Robert Kuhn, an American investment banker who has worked as a consultant to the Chinese government, "beyond the juicily salacious details, this is not the political earthquake people claim."

"This is a gargantuan scandal, the biggest in memory. But we are not dealing with fundamental differences in the party."

DespiteChina'sheavy media censorship, the scandal has been rocking Chinese microblogs since Chongqing's former top cop, Wang Lijun, sought political asylum at a U.S. consulate claiming his life was in danger because of an investigation of Bo's family. The consulate was surrounded by hundreds of police cars.

"I was sitting in a cafe in Shanghai and I got five emails within minutes showing me pictures of the police cars," Kuhn said. "There was no way the party could keep this under wraps.

"Now," Kuhn said, "they're trying to get ahead of the story."

barbara.demick@latimes.com

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