Bo Xilai: China aberration or business as usual?

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through The Looking Glass, when the Walrus and the Carpenter take the little oysters on a long march along the beach, the Walrus weeps over the fate of the poor shellfish while he scoffs as many as he can behind the cover of the handkerchief he’s sobbing into. This image sums up my feelings about the disgraced party secretary of Chonqing, Bo Xilai whose rising star has been super-novaed in spectacular style.

Months after 41-year old British businessman Neil Heywood died in Chongqing last November of a suspected drinks binge and was hurriedly cremated without an autopsy despite telling friends he feared for his life, the news that he was most likely poisoned with cyanide at the behest of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai after an argument about their business interests, has exploded across the top echelons of the CPP.

Set to become the leader of the top superpower with a seat on the nine-strong Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), Bo will now be lucky if he’s sweeping streets by the end of the murder investigation, and it’ll be astonishing if his wife —rapidly replacing the late Madam Mao Chiang Ching as Lady MacBeth du nos jours — avoids the death penalty.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,

“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–

Of cabbages–and kings–

And why the sea is boiling hot–

And whether pigs have wings.”

“But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried,
“Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!”
“No hurry!” said the Carpenter.

They thanked him much for that.

What’s emerging from the suspected “intentional homicide” of Heywood (and who knows what little embellishments and out-and-out inventions are being devised by interested parties) is a text-book case of the sort of leaders who give despotism a bad name. While Bo was the politician showman and leader of a supercity of 28 million, Gu’s law firm specialised in extracting a large slice of China’s wealth and spiriting it abroad, claimed by former deputy mayor and police chief Wang Lijun to be several hundred million dollars. Heywood is thought to have threatened to blow the whistle on her deals.

Smuggling money abroad is a major problem for China. It’s estimated that, in the ten years to 2009, RMB 800 billion ($127bn) was moved overseas illegally.

A China Merchants Bank and Bain & Company joint report, published in April 2011, revealed that 27% of those with over RMB 100 million have emigrated, and a further 47% are considering emigration. That’s a whopping 74% of China’s wealthiest wanting to leave with their loot.

“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,

“Is what we chiefly need:

Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed–
Now if you’re ready, 
Oysters dear,

We can begin to feed.”

“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.

“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”

“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.

“Do you admire the view?

I’d been hoping that China had avoided the fate of the old USSR where, under Yeltsin and then Putin, communist cadre turned cowboys turned oligarchs and carved up Russia’s assets making billionaires out of the former guardians of the socialist state. However, with China’s top 70 politicians in the National People’s Congress worth $89b, ten times the net worth of all of the US Congress, that’s some wishful thinking.

According to Louisa Lim’s interview with Jiang Weiping, a Chinese journalist who did time in prison after investigating Bo and Gu’s corruption in the 1980s:

Bo was running Dalian’s propaganda office, which oversaw cultural affairs. His wife, who is also a lawyer, started the Folk Customs Culture Research Institute.
“The heads of the Authors Association and the Artists Association, etc., were chosen by his wife,” Jiang says. “You had to give her gifts before you would be promoted. She got millions from entrepreneurs ‘sponsoring’ her institute. But she was actually just raking in money. She used this to throw parties, give favors and line her own pockets.”
As her husband rose through the ranks, Gu set up a legal firm, which Jiang believes fulfilled the same function. Jiang alleges the pair used family members to hide their wealth. Gu’s sisters have companies worth $126 million, according to Bloomberg news agency. And Bo’s brother is reportedly vice chairman of a state-run company, using a pseudonym, with stock options worth $25 million.

It’s little wonder that the children of formerly privileged families such as Ai Wei Wei are seething. It’s one thing losing the family fortune if it all goes back into the pot for the good of society as a whole. It’s quite another to see another ruling elite emerging who are troughing down on your inheritance.

“It was so kind of you to come!

And you are very nice!”

The Carpenter said nothing but
“Cut us another slice:

I wish you were not quite so deaf–
I’ve had to ask you twice!”

The peasants and workers aren’t too pleased, either. There’s a nostalgia for Mao Zedong whose helmsmanship saw life expectancy double, lowered the death rate from 38 per thousand in 1949 to 10 per thousand in 1957, and lifted hundreds of millions out of absolute poverty. In Mobo Gao’s fascinating book, The Battle For China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, he describes the change in lifestyle for ordinary people in his home village. Not only did their quality of life improve with free or cheap healthcare, decent housing and often a job for life, but their cultural life was enriched as well.

Now, under communism with capitalist characteristics, the poor are getting poorer and 95 percent of the national wealth is owned by 5 percent of the population. Revolution? What revolution?

“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,

“To play them such a trick,

After we’ve brought them out so far,

And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”

So when, in classic demagogue style, wideboy Bo saw a gap in the market, he was in there like a rat up a drainpipe. His populist Mao-inspired campaigns and crackdown on corruption earned him rock-star status that began to worry his CCP rivals. But at the same time as he was sticking it to the mafia and sticking up for the masses, we now know that his lady wife was getting her alleged lover, the very dead Heywood, to take their mega-millions out of the country.

There’s been a groundswell of bitterness in evidence ever since 1989. Although the western press like to depict the Tian Anmen protests as a desire by the populace to emulate western democracy, the occupants of the square that June came with a wide range of complaints, a chief one being corruption and a growing divide between the new rich and the poor who’d made such great sacrifices in the effort to create an equitable and democratic society.

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”

With sobs and tears he sorted out

Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief

Before his streaming eyes.

It may not have taken a genius to see which way the wind was blowing but it took a charismatic talent like Bo — tall, handsome, a ready smile, charm and utter ruthlessness — to marshall those forces into one which would sweep him to power. And, indeed, he was headed for the very top: leader of the geriatric communist party. At 62 Bo was a mere whippersnapper by CCP standards and probably had a couple more decades of careerism in him.

It may not have been his own corruption, however, that triggered his demise. It’s depressing to think that if he hadn’t over-reached himself, he may well have risen to the top. Louisa Lim again:

China’s press is emphasizing that his spectacular downfall has not touched off any political turmoil. “It does not indicate a political struggle within the party,” reads an editorial published Wednesday in the China Daily.
But few Chinese believe that, especially in light of news reports that party members and the military have had to swear loyalty oaths to China’s current leadership. “There can only be one explanation for the military’s oath of loyalty,” says Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University of China. “Bo Xilai tried to mobilize the army, something like a rebellion. He went too far.”

I haven’t yet heard who’s idea it was to cremate Heywood so fast [EDIT: apparently it was the family who requested it] or why a British consul official was present at the deed. In this murky tale, the businessman’s was not the only cadaver clogging up the scenery. When Bo’s former henchman, the police chief Wang Lijun, realised he was in too deep and ran to the sanctuary of the American consulate in Chengdu, seven of his associates were said to have been captured by Bo and two of his investigation team tortured to death, probably by his “personal security detail” getting mediaeval on their arse.

On the other hand, inconveniently deprived of a body, we may never know whether Bo and Gu were stitched up by their rivals or if they really are as monstrous as has been claimed.

A handful of dust he may be, but in shaking the ruling elite of the next top superpower to the core, Neil Heywood — suspected of being a spook, now in every sense — may have done a better job than NATO.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,

“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–

And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

FURTHER READING: Clear insightful analysis at China Worker looking at the power struggle between the factions at the top.

“In [Wen’s] nine years in office, China’s electricity generation has tripled, its steel production has quadrupled and the number of cars and trucks manufactured each year has increased nearly sixfold,” noted the South China Morning Post (14 March 2012). But as this newspaper then added, “China’s Gini coefficient, a widely followed measure of income inequality, has shot up from a level similar to America’s when Wen took over, to a level today closer to Swaziland’s.”

The LRB on The Dismissal of Bo Xilai

Madam Miaow says … visit Anna Chen’s website here:


Anna’s food blog here:

5 thoughts on “Bo Xilai: China aberration or business as usual?”

  1. For anyone confused by the acres of print that have gone into the Bo Xi Lai story, I recommend this strongly. Good work, Madam Miao!

  2. Excellent coverage of the Bo Xilai Madam Miaow! What is also interesting is how the story spread so fast around China via the new 'microblogs' – hopefully, the exposure of the levels of corruption and brutality behind the heroic facade of high ranking CCP Official's like Bo will inspire ordinary Chinese workers to demand change. No wonder people are so nostalgic for the Mao Years.

  3. I wrote an article on the saga so I don't want to repeat its contents.

    So just a few remarks.

    The Chinese capitalists are subordinate to, and exploited by, the CPC and the bureaucracy.

    Although a few thousand have become extremely rich as you correctly point out, many, if not most, want to leave China. This is because they do not feel that their wealth is secure.

    They don't run China because all the most important sector of the economy starting with the banks are in state ownership.

    The fact that Bo could rise on the basis of a local powerbase and direct appeals to masses made the capitalists even more worried about the future.

    I do not think any illusions should be promoted of a mythical lost half-paradise of Maoist egalitarianism.

    The Hukou at that time, meant a complete ban on mobility between land and city. How could migration not have followed automatically as the Hukou was relaxed?

    It is wrong to say that the poor are getting poorer. China has witnessed the biggest poverty redution of any country in history over the last 30 years.

    There is currently a massive expansion of health care, pensions and public housing in China. They are building 40% more public housing in only 5 years, than all of britain's housing stock, which was built over centuries!

    This is in addition to a collosal development of urban infrastructure, e.g. 28 urban metro systems are being built simultaeously, a big rise workers' wages, and a vast investment in Green Technology, making China the world number one in Green Investment.
    In a word general economic development which improves the lives of the masses is advancing at an incredible pace in China. (Faster and better than the USSR ever did.)

    In the migrant labour based export sectors in Guangdong, the workers are increasingly able to reject job offers and they move jobs often.

    This also is a reflection of a shift in the balance of power towards the workers. I think the big issue is the organization and mobilization of the 230 million trade union members to enforce their legal rights, and I think it can and will happen.

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