Jiabao Du

Actor, Trickster, Rogue: Chinese Discuss the Many Faces of Bo

A Peking opera mask. (Via Bigstockphoto)
A Peking opera mask. (Via Bigstockphoto)

The trial of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, who was charged with bribery, corruption and abuse of power, was held in Jinan, Shandong province on August 22. Chinese observers have debated the fairness of the trial, the real reasons behind Bo’s downfall, and China’s rule of law in light of the proceedings, but have given almost equal attention for the larger-than-life personality of the man himself.

Flamboyant, vengeful, crafty, mendacious, eloquent: is Bo some or all of these things? Is Bo’s fall due to his own flaws, or those of the larger political system? What do we really know about Bo Xilai?

A superb actor

One of the most shared portraits of Bo Xilai was tweeted by the prominent Chinese magazine People on the first day of the trial. In the piece, which draws on detailed accounts of numerous episodes to support its thesis, Bo is described as an “actor.” Moreover, its author, Shen Yachuan, is an outspoken political critic, well known in the media sphere. He was also the main force behind the blockbuster report entitled “Exposing Wang Lijun,” which was thought by many to be the best investigative report of 2012.

In this most recent piece, Shen wrote:

If China’s politics are a great drama that never ends, then Chongqing [where Bo served immediately prior to his investigation and trial] is an important act, and Bo is undoubtedly the protagonist…At different moments and in areas on the stage, Bo played different roles. His remarkable performance and style reflect his positioning, personality, and political style.如果说中国政治是一出青山不改绿水长流, 永不谢幕的大戏, 那么重庆就是一个重要的舞台, 而薄熙来毫无疑问就是一个主角……在这个舞台上的不同时空里, 薄熙来饰演着不同的角色, 他的戏路与风格, 出戏与入戏, 都可圈可点, 体现着薄熙来的路径依赖, 凝聚着薄熙来的性格特征, 折射着薄熙来的行事风格。

By Shen’s account, Bo put 110% into his acting不成魔不成活, in an attempt to project his charisma like Mao Zedong, staying “in character” even when Wang Lijun fled to the U. S. Consulate in Chengdu on February 6, 2012, with allegations that Bo’s family had engaged in criminal behaviors, including murdering British businessman Neil Heywood.

Even at that point, the actor Bo Xilai’s performance was gorgeous. First, he drove to Kunming City for inspection. He fed the seagulls while smiling at a lake. At ease and confident come hell or high water – that was Mao’s style. Then he ordered the Chongqing Daily to publish his calligraphy on the front page to advocate his nation-governing philosophy…That was Mao’s style too. Only leaders with charismatic personalities can do such things.但就在此时, 演员薄熙来的表演亦可圈可点。他先是驱车昆明考察, 滇湖边笑盈盈喂海鸥——不管风吹浪打, 我自闲庭信步。这仍然是很眼熟的毛泽东作派。紧接着又连令重庆日报在头版刊发他的手书……薄熙来的书法, 是典型的毛体, 这个做法也是典型的毛氏风格, 社论治国, 手令治国, 非奇理斯玛人格型的领袖气质不能为也。

Shen claimed that Bo, “narcissistic to the point of megalomania自恋成癖, 就容易自大成狂,” enjoyed playing up his importance by being late, or deliberately absent, on some occasions, especially media conferences.

Even on the day that the media was allowed to interview delegates during China’s Two Meetings [short for the simultaneous meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Political Consultative Conference, the two most important conferences in China], Bo arrived late on purposes, and then explained himself while cozying up to the media and demonstrating his approachability.几次两会重庆团的记者开放日, 薄都故意迟到, 然后再借机解释, 拉拢距离, 以显示亲民姿态。

On another occasion, the 60th anniversary of the Southwest University of Political Science and Law in 2010, he behaved in a similar manner. Shen remarked, “Previously, he had said he could not attend the ceremony. Then he arrived halfway through it and made an impromptu speech2010年西南政法大学建校六十周年, 薄事先表示不会出席, 然后半途突然赶到, 发表即席演说。. The video of the speech went viral on the Internet, and was taken as proof of Secretary Bo’s eloquence.这次视频, 后被放到网络疯传, 成为薄书记口才的证明。

To understand why Bo is a brilliant actor requires diving into the darker side of his personality. Shen wrote that Bo is a paradox: “On the one hand, he has a great love of grand occasions and appearances. On the other hand, he is narrowed-mind and vengeful.薄熙来性格是既大又小的矛盾体:形式感与大场面, 好大喜功, 这是大。反过来是小, 睚眦必报的小。

Shen supported this point by outlining the top-down policy decisions Bo ordered executed while he was the top official in Chongqing City. They included: planting tremendous ginkgo plants despite the unsuitable climate, owing to Bo’s affection for ginkgo; ordering that Chongqing’s television stations run a great amount of old patriotic programs; and organizing groups of people from Chongqing people to sing red [Communist] songs.

How “narrowed-mind and vengeful” is Bo? Shen wrote: “In Bo’s dictionary, the word ‘forgiveness’ never existed, as can be seen from how he dealt with his rivals, Jiang Weiping, Li Qiang and Li Zhuang.薄的字典里, 没有宽恕二字。从他对付姜维平、黎强、李庄这三个敌人的手法即可见一斑。

Jiang Weiping was sent to prison on felony charges after writing reports that caused him to fall out with Bo. Information about Jiang is still unavailable online, “in accordance with laws and regulations,” a common reason given for the censorship or blocking of politically sensitive content on the Internet.

Li Qiang was convicted of leading a mafia organization and sentenced to twenty years in prison. According to Shen, Li earned this sentence making fun of “Secretary Bo” at a conference. The speed and lack of transparency with which Li’s property has been auctioned off has raised suspicions.

Li Zhuang, the defense lawyer for a ‘mafia boss’ named Gong Gangmo, was convicted of perjury and sentenced to one-and-a-half years in prison. Li Zhuang has drawn support from many well-known lawyers like Chen Youxi and laws scholars like He Weifang. His case sparked discussion about illegal procedures and miscarriages of justice in Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun’s movement to eliminate organized crime.

Shen concluded his piece by writing:

Personality determines one’s destiny. Personality is what makes this a tragedy. Bo Xilai was never a man content with the status quo or surrendering to fate. In a democratic system, he might have followed a legitimate path to obtaining paramount power rather than going crazy. In a constitutional system, he might have been unable to harm the people with his paramount power. The tragedy of the actor Bo Xilai is not only the tragedy of his family and the people of Chongqing; it is the tragedy of China’s uncontrolled, untransparent politics.性格决定命运, 性格铸就悲剧。薄熙来从来就不是适安分守己的人, 也不会习惯甘于命运的安排。如果是在民选机制下, 他或许会有一个攫取最高权力的合法途径, 不至于疯魔至此。如果是在宪政架构下, 又不至于让他以最高权力来荼毒苍生。薄熙来这个演员的悲剧, 不仅是他个人和家庭的悲剧, 也不仅是过去五年来重庆人民的悲剧, 也是不透明无规则的中国政治的悲剧。

Shen Yachuan’s article was shared 6,980 times and drew 344 comments. However, only 20 of the comments were visible due to censorship. Lawyer Gan Yuanchun wrote: “A good article. Recommend!好文, 推荐!” Another user, @心灵的旅行, tweeted: “A clear and profound analysis.分析透彻

Other description of Bo: tricky and eloquent

In contrast with Shen Yachuan’s article, which was supported by detailed arguments, the China Central Television (CCTV)’s denunciation of Bo Xilai is supported by emotional expressions and speculation instead of evidence.

On August 22, CCTV posted an article entitled “Rogue and Trickster: The Last Madness of Mendacity” on its website. It claimed:

Bo Xilai is tricky, domineering and double-dealing, citing his past actions as proof. He distanced himself from his partner and child, whom he had once called his ‘virtuous wife and filial son,’ during the trial. He played with people’s lives. His former aides and comrades seem to want nothing to do with him. In the past, Bo covered his greedy eagerness with lies. Today, he denies committing the crimes to which he had earlier confessed. Probably, even at the last minute, felt he must continue with these lies and could not reveal his true self…Bo’s performance during the trial is a superb example of an extremely cunning, corrupt person who will never surrender. If the criminal regards a fair courtroom as a stage upon which to carry out his conspiratorial tricks, he is hopelessly stubborn and runs counter to justice and general principles of humanity.薄熙来诡计多端、飞扬跋扈、两面三刀, 以为他过去的经历所证实。他口口声声的“贤妻孝子”, 在法庭上, 在他的口中, 与他形同陌路, 视人命如儿戏。他曾经的“干将”、“同志”, 似乎也与他毫无瓜葛。曾经, 薄熙来用一个个谎言编织自己的贪婪欲望;而今天在庭上, 他还在对于自己曾经的认罪矢口否认。或许, 即便到了最后一刻, 他也要背负自己的谎言, 不肯还原一个真实的自己……薄熙来在庭审上的表现确是腐败分子异常狡诈、不轻易放弃、不轻易投降的一个极致典型。若罪犯认为法庭的公平, 是自己玩弄阴谋伎俩的“舞台”, 那就是彻底的冥顽不化, 就是自绝于人类正义与公理。

Lin Yinxing , a reporter, posted CCTV’s commentary on Weibo, and it was retweeted over 59,000 times, drawing 75 comments.

User @醒龙智 wrote: “Not like an objective report or rational commentary at all; more like an outraged Big Character Poster.不像客观报道, 更不像理性评论, 倒像义愤填膺的大字报。” Big character posters were used for denouncing people during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Law scholar He Weifang also noted that CCTV’s description was in the style of the Cultural Revolution.文字颇有文革之风。

While CCTV described Bo’s defense during the trial as “tricky,” many people were stunned by his eloquence. Some even became Bo’s fans.

Rather than obediently accepting all the allegations of corruption, Bo overturned them and claimed that he had confessed “against his will.” He called Tang Xiaolin, a businessman and witness during the trial “a totally corrupt person and financial fraud.地地道道的贪腐分子和经济骗子.” Bo also called Gu Kailai’s testimony “very ridiculous and laughable.非常滑稽、非常可笑“Instead of being interrogated by another witness, Xu Ming, Bo threw out 21 sharp question about his involvement and knowledge of Xu Ming’s dealings. Xu mostly answered “No.” Bo ended the interrogation by thanking Xu Ming for his honesty.

Xu Danei, a columnist with the Financial Times, wrote:

Facts demonstrate that it is uneasy to subdue the fierce and ambitious man…this afternoon seemed to be the best, most brilliant speech of his whole life. Clear retorts, rigorous logical heckling, fast reactions and a thorough understanding of when to be hard and when to be soft — these made the audience hold its breath and recall his former glory.事实证明, 一代枭雄并没有那么容易被驯服……这个下午, 薄熙来果真是厚积薄发, 仿佛是把他毕生的演讲才华都淋漓尽致地表现了出来。辩驳思路之清晰, 提问逻辑之严谨, 现场反应之快速, 何处示弱, 何处争强, 让在电脑屏幕前的观战者都屏住了呼吸, 不禁要回想起他当年谈笑风生的神采。

While the jury is still out on just how much of Bo’s testimony has been scripted, the accused man’s eloquent arguments have made some question their previous assumptions that the trial must be choreographed. Echoing Shen Yachuan’s portrait of Bo as “a superb actor,” Xu Danei posited a guess at why things had not turned out as planned: “Did the director encounter a domineering actor?或者, 还有个解释, 就是“导演遇上了戏霸”?

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Jiabao Du

Jiabao Du is a junior majoring in journalism at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou City, China. She is interning at a magazine called the Southern People Weekly at present.
  • Paul Schoe

    Presenting China’s politics as “a great drama” is indeed one of the best way to descibe the unfolding of the Bo Xilai affair. I find people around me absolutely fascinated about the developments. Last year, when Bo Xilai was arrested, they already discussed the various aspects of this act of the drama. Now, with the information that was released from his testimony, the story appears to have many more layers than that they even imagined a year ago.

    We may never know “how much of Bo’s testimony has been scripted“, but in recent years politics have never been closer to the public and Bo Xilai’s eloquent performence resulted in lively discussions at restaurants,families and work floors. The great drama will not stop for quite a while, but this act will remain in people’s memory for a long long time.

  • pfcwms

    Ms. Du presents a telling contrast between Shen Yachuan’s incisive and informative piece of journalism and the clichéd, repetitious denunciation of the CCTV editorial. The sample of tweets or comments on both pieces were also well-chosen.

  • Matthew Cooper

    Bo Xilai: China’s great monster or China’s greatest monster? We report, you decide!