Rachel Lu

Who Killed Bo Xilai's Career? Political Murder on the Orient Express

On a high-speed train in the Orient, a murder has taken place under cover of night. On April 11, the public awoke to find that the political career of Bo Xilai, China’s “only celebrity politician,” had finally died.

The news did not come as a surprise; Bo’s career suffered a brutal stabbing a month ago and had been bleeding to a painful death under the limelight of the international media. But one month from the Ides of March, a key question remains: Who killed Bo Xilai’s career?

Here are the prime suspects, and what we profess to be mere speculations on their possible motives. Put on your Poirot hats.

1.         Brutus – Wang Lijun

The flight of Bo’s right-hand man and police chief, Wan Lijun, to the U.S. consulate in early February bearing damaging documents was the immediate cause of Bo’s downfall. This dramatic opening act of Bo-llywood 2012 posed tantalizing questions but few answers. Why did Wang betray the man who plucked him from obscurity and enabled him to rise to national anti-mafia hero status?

Perhaps the manner of Wang’s flight offered some clues on his motives. The act of fleeing to the foreign consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu to seek safe passage to Beijing suggested that Wang lived in a great deal of fear. The police chief apparently felt so much in danger (of being put into a mental institution, or worse) that he could neither devise a safe way to get to Beijing nor find protection in local governments outside of Bo’s turf. Instead, he made an international spectacle to bring immediate attention to his grievances. That’s what we call thinking outside the box.

2.      Emperor and Premier – Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao

Bo Xilai, by birth and by both of his marriages, is Communist nobility. By contrast, the sitting party secretary Hu and premier Wen, respectively number one and number three in the Party hierarchy, had to work their ways up to the top from humble beginnings. Neither had a support base among Party elite handed to them on a silver plate.

Despite his Party bloodline, Bo did not toe the Party line under Hu and Wen. After being demoted to the backwater Chongqing, Bo gambled his political future on appealing to the left side of China’s political spectrum with Mao-style demagoguery that deviated in important ways from directives passed down from the Imperial City.

Hu and Wen are set to step down from paramount leadership in 2012 and want to secure their legacy and influence in retirement. Allowing someone like Bo to rise to the highest echelon of power would be inconvenient, to say the least. Indeed, the net for Bo may have been tightened over time. Foreign media reported that Bo’s wife was investigated for corruption in 2007 and Wang Lijun was summoned to Beijing for questioning in late 2011.

3.      Heir Apparent – Xi Jinping

Before Bo’s fall, many had put him in the same camp as Xi Jinping, the heir handpicked by Party elites in 2007. Both “princelings” had prominent revolutionary progenitors and seemed to be natural allies in this regard.

Xi, however, may have had a hand in killing Bo’s career. Their fathers were on different sides of the political spectrum. Xi’s father was the man Deng Xiaoping entrusted with spearheading economic reforms in the late 1970’s, while Bo’s father was a well-known hardliner.

Xi’s low-key style could not be more different from Bo’s high-flying antics. Managing the ambitious and insubordinate Bo would be difficult if Bo were promoted to the next Standing Committee of the Politburo, and giving him more political maneuver room could even threaten Xi’s own position at the top.

4.      Lady Macbeth and the Prodigal Melon – Bo Xilai’s wife and son

Bo Xilai’s Achille’s Heel was clearly his wife and son. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, is charged with the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, who was Bo Guagua’s mentor by some accounts. Do Bo’s closest family members have any motives in harming his career? Freud may say yes. 

The beautiful and ambitious Gu Kailai was a hard-charging lawyer before she gave up her practice to play the role of a demure taitai of a rising politician. She wrote a few best-selling books in the 1990′s, one about her leading role in a high-profile case she fought and won in the U.S. Her son, Bo Guagua, said in an 2009 interview that “she most hated being in dad’s shadows and losing herself. She is reading and researching all day now, focusing on ‘comparative culture.’” {{1}}[[1]]她最不愿意被罩在爸爸的影子下,失掉自己。她现在整天读书做学问,研究“比较文化”。[[1]] [Link to the full interview in Chinese here]. Did her sacrifice drive her to “depression, fear of betrayal and an increasingly distant relationship with her husband,” turning China’s would-be Jackie Kennedy into China’s Lady Macbeth

As for Bo Guagua, Tea Leaf Nation previously speculated about his Oedipal urge to take revenge on the man who named him “melon melon.”

5.      The Doppelgänger – Bo Xilai himself

Sometimes, ambitious men are their own worst enemies. It has been so throughout history.

@阴霾北京 offered this thought on Bo’s fate on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter: “Rank-and-file party cadres knew a few hours before [the announcement]; social media users knew a few days before; foreign media knew a few weeks before; politicians knew a few months before; sociologists knew a few decades before; historians knew a few hundred years before; philosophers knew a few thousand years before. This is Chinese politics.” {{2}}[[2]]党员干部提前几小时知道,微博达人提前几天知道,境外媒体提前几星期知道,政治家提前几个月知道,社会学家提前几年知道,政治学家提前几十年知道,历史学家提前几百年知道,哲学家提前几千年知道。这就是中国政治。[[2]]

One final clue

Foreign media including the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and New York Times, broke the Heywood story over the course of a month before the official announcement of Bo’s ouster, all citing mysterious “unnamed sources.” The key passages of their articles easily found their way into China’s social media. Did someone in the know release information bit by bit through the foreign media – knowing Chinese social media would pick it up – to prepare the public for the axing of Bo Xilai? Who is Deep Throat and when will he show himself? Only time will tell.

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Rachel Lu

Rachel Lu is a co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation. Rachel traces her ancestry to Southern China. She spent much of her childhood memorizing Chinese poetry. After long stints in New York, New Haven and Cambridge, she has returned to China to bear witness to its great transformation. She is currently based in China.
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  • tz401

    What a great, in-sightful and above all, amusing piece.

  • tz401

    What a great, in-sightful and above all, amusing piece.