Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Making Sense of the Bo Xilai Story

The downfall of Chongqing's former party chief Bo Xilai and the allegations that his wife Gu Kailai was responsible for the death of British businessman Neil Heywood is a story fit for Hollywood and of immense significance in China. I refrained from writing anything about it since I saw little I could add to what had already been written. But I will share some of the recent pieces I have found either useful for understanding the evolving story or simply eye-opening.

The article "China's Bo Xilai affair: where the case stands" by Peter Ford on The Christian Science Monitor provides an overview of what is known at the moment:
Heywood's death and the Bo couple's detention are two of the few indisputable facts in a murky affair whose political ramifications are magnified by Bo's importance: Until scandal overtook him, he was a contender for one of the top nine jobs in the ruling Communist Party. It is clear to anyone familiar with the way Chinese politics works that Bo's enemies have used and amplified the scandal to bring him down.

Almost everything else about the case is speculation based on unidentified sources whose motives in recounting the case's details are unclear. The police have said nothing, and the absence of reliable information has left the field clear for a welter of dramatic rumors, spreading like wildfire on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, ranging from the type of poison used to kill Heywood to an impending military coup.

The case began to crack open Feb. 7, when photographs appeared on Weibo (China's version of Twitter) showing an unusual congregation of police outside the US Consulate in Chengdu, 170 miles from Chongqing. Two days later, another blogger posted the passenger manifest of a flight from Chengdu to Beijing showing that Bo's right-hand man, Wang Lijun, had taken that flight in the company of a vice minister of security.

Mr. Wang, it transpired, had fled to the US consulate, apparently seeking asylum, but left of his own accord when he was sure that regional police loyal to Bo wouldn't take him into custody.

Wang was almost certainly not going to be given asylum by the United States. He had been the chief of police in Chongqing during Bo's noisy antimafia campaign, which critics and victims complained had relied heavily on torture. But before handing himself over to the Chinese security chief and disappearing into an interrogation room somewhere, Wang showed US diplomats a police file suggesting that Ms. Gu had been involved in Heywood's murder.
As mentioned by Ford, there is much about the case that is only speculation. Hannah Beech on Time in her post "The Bo Xilai Rumor Mill: Is There a Method Behind the Wild Speculation?" (H/T Gady Epstein) shares some of the challenges in piecing together the truth. For example:
While reporting this week’s TIME’s magazine story about Bo, I talked within a 24-hour period to five Chinese (academics, advisers and state-linked journalists) with access to the halls of power in Beijing. Three of them compared Bo to Hitler, each saying that Bo was manipulating a naive populace just like the German dictator once did. I would have believed one person coming up with a Hitler analogy on his own. But three? Then two of the five gave the exact same convoluted explanation of how Bo’s transgressions were worse than that of Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair. I pushed one of the experts, and it became clear he didn’t really know much about the Lewinsky scandal at all. Later that day, a Chinese journalist told me that the media publication he worked for had received an internal notice comparing Bo’s actions to that of Clinton. While his media organization did not run any editorial comparing Bo and Clinton, I was the recipient of this talking point from two different people.
Regardless, more details continue to be reported. Today I saw what has to be one of the most bizarre in the Reuter's article "Exclusive: Bo's wife dressed as Chinese army general after Heywood death: source" by Chris Buckley (H/T Ray Kwong for the link and appropriate adjective):
A few days after Heywood was killed in Chongqing, southwest China in November, Gu strode into a meeting of police officials wearing a military uniform and gave a rambling speech in which she told the startled officials that she was on a mission to protect the city's police chief, Wang Lijun, the source said.

"First she said that she was under secret orders from the Ministry of Public Security to effectively protect Comrade Wang Lijun's personal safety in Chongqing," said the source, adding that she wore a green People's Liberation Army (PLA) uniform with a major-general's insignia and bristling with decorations.

"It was a mess," he said of Gu's speech, which circulated among some police and officials. "I reached the conclusion that she would be trouble."

It was not clear to those present why Gu, who had never served in the military, had put on a PLA uniform or what she was trying to convey with her vow to protect Wang, the source said. The incident, on or about November 20, left the officials even more bewildered about her mental state, he added.
Despite having a deep background in cognitive neuroscience, without more details I will restrain myself from any commentary on this report.

Later, I will share in a similar fashion some pieces about how the story is being reported in China and the heavy censorship of related online discussion. For now, I recommend reading the above pieces which provide enough to digest for one post. Or movie.

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