By Elly Mui
In another surprise twist in the ongoing case of former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, he is accused of being responsible for wire-tapping the phones of President Hu Jintao and that the discovery of the surveillance may have led to his downfall.
Until now, the downfall of Mr. Bo has been cast largely as a tale of a populist who pursued his own agenda too aggressively for some top leaders in Beijing and was brought down by accusations that his wife had arranged the murder of Neil Heywood, a British consultant, after a business dispute. But the hidden wiretapping, previously alluded to only in internal Communist Party accounts of the scandal, appears to have provided another compelling reason for party leaders to turn on Mr. Bo.
The story of how China’s president was monitored also shows the level of mistrust among leaders in the one-party state. To maintain control over society, leaders have embraced enhanced surveillance technology. But some have turned it on one another — repeating patterns of intrigue that go back to the beginnings of Communist rule.
Nearly a dozen people with party ties, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution, confirmed the wiretapping, as well as a widespread program of bugging across Chongqing. But the party’s public version of Mr. Bo’s fall omits it.
Bo Xilai: fallen from grace
In a tale of the political intrigue which reads stranger than fiction, former Chinese party leader Bo Xilai has suffered a stunning fall from grace. Once being linked to a new generation of party leadership, Bo is now associated with torture and murder. His case first grew international media attention through his connection to the mysterious death of British businessman, Neil Heywood, and the resulted fallout had become one of the biggest political scandals in the Chinese history. Joining us to discuss the scandal and its potential implications is Gordon Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China”.
So the government knew about Bo Xilai’s corruption and the US even knew about this for months. But it only recently decided to reveal the information to the public. Why now? And why is the government outing him?
There is an ongoing political struggle at the top of the communist party. Later this year the 4th generation leaders who were led by Hu Jintao are supposed to give way to the 5th presumably under the command of Xi Jinping and in connection with this leadership change which happens once a decade the Communist party leaders are squawked among themselves and this has become much of a bigger fight recently. Bo Xilai had a very high profile campaign to get himself on a poll with the top of the Chinese leadership. And right now people are concerned for number of reasons, so they decided to bring him down. That’s why we’ve had all these revelations about Bo and his wife, the death of Neil Heywood which he referred to and so many other stories which were worrying and certainly fascinating.
Bo Xilai is also known as a “princeling”. Can you explain to our audience what that is and why it’s important to the story?
Princeling is a descending of one of the early leaders of the People’s Republic. Bo’s father Bo Yibo was considered to be one of the 8 immortals of the People’s Republic, now princelings are generally thought to be a faction inside the Communist party. The other factions are: The Shanghai gang, which is really led by a former leader Jiang Zemin, and the Communist Youth League faction led by Hu Jintao, the current leader. The princelings are sort of a loose group, maybe not so cohesive, but nonetheless very important because Xi Jinping may become the next leader of China at the end of this year and he is a princeling. So people are focused a lot on the princeling faction.
And is there a problem of corruption within the princeling faction?
Yes, there is. And there is a problem of corruption in all the factions. Really the problem with the communist party right now is that corruption has gone out of control because there is too much money in China with this fabulous growth in recent years and so this is a spectacle that is repulsing the Chinese people. And this is a real problem because corruption has brought down Chinese dynasties in the past. It looks like the same things are happening now. There are number of stories about Gu Kailai, Bo’s wife, and people say – and this of course is unconfirmed – that Gu had Neil Heywood, the British national, killed because there were transferring a lot of money abroad and that Heywood wanted the bigger cut. I don’t know if these stories are true, they’re probably not, but this is what the Chinese people read out these days and that’s having a very corrosive effect on the legitimacy of the Communist party.
While the unraveling of Bo’s scandal has exposed the country to ramp in corruption, some say that this can be good for China and that the exposure is first step to possible reforming in future. Is this idea being too optimistic for China? What are the possible outcomes of this case?
There is a possibility because people are saying that the reformers are winning the political struggle which is a little bit too optimistic. People say that Bo’s “Chongqing model” was very regressive and they can trust this with a premier, Wen Jiabao, but you got to remember that premier, Wen Jiabao, and his allies have really presided over the biggest renationalization of the Chinese economy, they believed in state-led development with their stimulus program and they themselves have sponsored the reintroduction of Marxist education at all levels of the Chinese educational system. So we’re dealing with one group of leaders against another. This is really just a political struggle where ideology may play a little bit but I actually don’t think that you’re going to see much in a way of reform because China generally doesn’t reform when you have a struggling economy and you have political struggle. The only time we’ve seen really big reforms was when there was a leader like Den Xiaoping who was able to institute reform against a lot of objections. There’s no leader like that in China today. So I think that with today’s environment in China and a rather struggling economy, political factionism and fighting, we’re not going to see the reforms for a very long time.
Do you think Bo Xilai’s rise to power was seen as a threat to people like Xi Jinping?
Probably not so much to Xi Jinping because just a few months ago Xi Jinping and Bo were actually quite friendly. Many people say that this ongoing saga regarding Bo was actually triggered by Hu Jintao, the current leader, as a means of sidelining Bo. But it also would have the effect of destabilizing Xi Jinping who was not necessarily on great terms with Hu Jintao, because Hu Jintao wanted somebody else to be the next general party’s secretary or leader of China. And that really means that this is a complicated issue. Bo and Xi Jinping were actually quite friendly before this crises started.
Could this lead to problems with Xi Jinping then? And to his presidency?
This could lead to the problems with the Communist party. In my mind, it’s not entirely clear if the party will be able to get through the crises because we’re seeing all sorts of problems in this location that were not supposed to happen. Virtually every China watcher said that the Communist party had institutionalized itself and this transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping was going to be smooth, but right now we’ve seen so many problems. Like rumors, assassination plots, all sort of things. And actually the most recent one is that people tried to assassinate Xi Jinping. So I wouldn’t say that Xi Jinping’s rise to power is assured. And certainly what we’re seeing right now is really serious problems that the Communist party hasn’t seen since 1989 or even since 1986.
Well, Bo even had his hands in the army. Could you explain how Bo’s case could reveal the inherent corruption within the People’s Liberation Army?
Bo’s wife is the daughter of a general and her family has been implicated in all sorts of corruption involving the People’s Liberation Army. Every institution in China is corrupted and the PLA has not been able to escape that. What we’re seeing right now is a very serious corruption scandal or scandals. They do involve the Party. This is significant because Bo, as you pointed out, has really good connections with the army. By the fact, during the first days of this crises in the first week of February of this year, Bo immediately went to Kunming, which is in Yunnan province, because there is where the headquarters of the 14th Group Army was and clearly all of these reminders from Hu Jintao stir warnings in the People’s Army about their loyalty to the Communist party. It means that there really is a question about the loyalty of the Army. Especially we’ve had three sets of rumors this year. One of them or maybe a couple of sets of rumors may actually be true. And so clearly there going to be real questions about the loyalty of the Army to the Party.
Well, in 70 general Lin Biao was the assumed successor to chairman Mao but then he vanished before he stepped into position. Some say that the outing of Bo by the government is suspicious and is reminding of the perch which happened during the Cultural Revolution. Is this the government’s way of reigning in power possibly?
I wouldn’t say that this is the government, this is more a party thing. In China there is a relative distinction between the Communist Party and the Chinese Central Government. Lin Biao was a very interesting scenario. We don’t know the truth of that, but many people are considering and saying that what we’re seeing today is another replay of the Lin Biao affair. And that was extremely serious considering there were all sorts of rumors of plots against Mao Zedong by Lin. What we’ve got right now is a replay of the instability. There’s really a fracture in the Communist party. This is very similar to what we have seen in the past when the party started to split.
You’re saying that almost every faction of the government has corruption. So now that it is exposed, what are the possibilities?
The Chinese people know that the party leaders are corrupt but they really have to face the consequences of that. What we’re seeing right now is that with the allegations against Bo and his wife and his family, people are trying to put Bo down very hard, imprison him, maybe even execute his wife. He has very little incentive to go gracefully into the night. And that means that he can fight back. And while Bo has a skeleton the closet with this story of Neil Heywood, Bo also knows that other leaders also have skeletons in their closets. He has every incentive now to out them, just as they outed him. All this guys are corrupt even reformers like Wen Jiabao. I mean, he makes very little money, but his wife makes shopping trips to Hong Kong for jewelry buying 100 0000 dollars’ worth jewels at a time. People start to notice, we’re really reaching a tipping point, I think. When all the Chinese start to say that all of these guys are corrupt, that the Party is corrupt – it’s not just a problem of one or two leaders, this is systemic. And once this realization starts to really sink in the Chinese people, I think we’re going to see very different conversations than we do today.
Bo spent millions on low income housing for the poor and also combating corruption. Are there still Bo’s supporters out there? And what do they say about him?
Bo is very popular because he did more than other leaders to try to help the poor. I’m not saying that he was a genuine reformer, I’m not saying that other Communist Party leaders didn’t try that. In the matter of fact, Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, have stressed equality much more than their predecessors, Jian Zeming and Zhu Rongji. So you do have this recognition of the wealth gap and income gap in China starting to threaten social stability. But Bo did more than others. And for that reason he was – still is – extremely popular. And many Chinese people are upset that other leaders try to put him down. And that really means that demonstrations that we saw in Chongqing a couple of weeks ago when people around the streets were supporting Bo, could actually spread. And that would be a nightmare scenario for the Party, when it starts to see people taking to the streets not just in Chongqing but across the country.
Do you really think there could be massive protests similar to the Tiananmen Square protests?
I’m not the only one who’s saying that. You have mainstream China analysts talking about possibilities of mass-protests across China. This is striking because, just a couple of months ago these guys used to say that everything was going to be ok and smooth, that transition would be fine and that the Party had institutionalized itself. I’m not saying it will happen, but there is a possibility. As these things continue to play out until the party actually mends itself if it can, the possibility of people taking to the streets will increase. All these rumors around China – they affect the Party’s rule. And that’s very important. Bo and his allies are very incentive to fight their opponents, this is going to get very ugly.
We recently interviewed a former American Lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And he was also embroiled in corrupt affairs within a government. Is there a way you could connect these two stories?
Every society has corruption. The difference in societies is the way they deal with it. Abramoff was just small peanuts. With Bo Xilai allegations are hundreds of millions, maybe a billion or two billion dollars. The scale of corruption in China dwarfs anything in the US. There are two reasons: the Communist Party is not accountable, you don’t have independent prosecutors, independent judges and of course you have the government and the Party making decision that the market should make. And when you have these two things present in the society – you’re going to have lots of corruption. In China where there’s been a lot of money, pouring into the country, you just have the corruption. Yes, people in the US are prosecuted for corruption. But we’re not talking about billions of dollars, that’s not true of the US.
Bo Xilai considered perspective and powerful politician, he was the possible candidate to the position of one of the 9 committee members Politburo of the Communist Party of China in 2012. But in March he was arrested and dismissed from his position in the Party after he was accused in corruption. Foreign media covering Bo Xilai case wrote that probably dismissal and arrest of Xilai are related to that Xilai got into a competition with the political group led by current General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Hu Jintao.
The official newspaper of the Communist Party of China “People’s Daily” on April 11 printed the article with the headtitle meaning “We must follow right decisions of the Communist Party of China”.
On the front page written others newspapers, too, said that dismissal of Bo Xilai, who are not called “comrad” anymore, and investigation against him indicates that noone is above the law in China.
Before Bo Xilai, dismissal from that high position in China was after Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
“Bo Xilai actions seriously violated Party’s discipline, brought loss to me Party and to the country, left a negative impression about the Party and the county”, the “People’s Daily”wrote.
“China is the socialist country that has the Law. Everyone must obey the Law. Noone is above the Law. In case of Law violations and Party’s discipline, strict sanctions should be taken regardless position titles”, the Communist Party of China stated.
April 26 on Western Media was information that Bo Xilai and people working for him could overhear telephone conversations of Hu Jintao. That issue became the reason of the dismissal of Bo Xilai from his job and from the Party, the media said.
The official version says that the reason of the sanctions against Bo Xilai became suspicion of his wife being involved with Neale Heywood death.
Bo Xilai is the son of Bo Yibo, one of the Eight Elders of the Communist Party of China. In the beginning of his political career he was the mayor of Dalian, then became the governor of Liaoning.
Working in Chongqing Bo fought crimes, restore social programs for working class, support GDP growth, initiated campaigns to revive ‘red culture’.
From April 15 to June 4 of 1989 it was series of student rallies on Tiananmen Square in Beijing against reforms of Deng Xiaoping and demanding democracy. The rally was dispersed by armed forces. Hundreds of protesters were killed.