Crossing a Red Line

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ImagineChina / Corbris

Marked man Bo at a meeting of Chinese leaders in Beijing on March 13, just two days before he was sacked as Chongqing party chief

It was 1998, and Chinese journalist Jiang Weiping had made an astonishing discovery. Jiang was covering the rise of China's most charismatic politician, Bo Xilai, and his alluring lawyer wife Gu Kailai for a state-run newspaper in the port city of Dalian, where Bo was mayor. Both Bo and Gu were "princelings," the favored offspring of famous Communist Party revolutionaries. But even as he fed a propaganda machine that hailed China's power couple, Jiang was uncovering evidence of what he says were massive abuses of power by the pair. Among his findings: a company linked to Gu, which, according to records, Jiang accessed from the Dalian trade and investment bureau, began local operations in 1996 with just 50,000 yuan in capital (about $8,000 at today's exchange rate) yet reported a profit of about $12.7 million a year later. Even in a booming city raking in foreign investment, that was a remarkable haul, indicating the company might be benefiting from deals linked to the mayor.

Jiang knew he couldn't publish such information in his hometown newspaper, so he wrote a series of exposés for Hong Kong publications, which are not bound by the censorship restrictions that gag mainland-Chinese media. Jiang's reporting cost him. In 2002 he was imprisoned for five years for "incitement of subversion of state power" and "illegally leaking state secrets to foreign organizations."

The now 55-year-old reporter's story might have been just another example of a renegade voice silenced in China — until the ignominious fall of Bo and Gu this spring. In China's biggest political scandal in decades, in April, Bo was suspended of his duties in the 25-member Politburo, quashing expectations that in the coming leadership shuffle he would join the hallowed Standing Committee that rules China. His wife Gu has been named a chief suspect in the "intentional homicide" of a British businessman who first met the couple in Dalian. Suddenly the types of misdeeds Jiang spent years exposing are being reported with tabloid-like frenzy by international media and even some Chinese-state-linked publications.

Beyond lurid headlines, the Bo case has given the world an unusual look into the inner intrigues of the Chinese Communist Party. Rifts between those who supported Bo's neo-Maoist leadership style and others pushing for further market-oriented reforms have been bared, betraying dissent within a party desperate to portray itself as united. More fundamentally, the alleged extent of Bo's personal excesses has dented the legitimacy of a party that, while acknowledging a corruption problem, tends to blame those lower in the government hierarchy for the worst abuses of power. With a widening income gap and perception of rising official impunity already discomfiting ordinary Chinese, the social compact between the party and the people could fray further. "Abuse of power and corruption by officials have gotten to such a serious stage that immediate actions must be taken," says Yang Fan, an economist who knows Bo's family. "But I'm very skeptical the government has the ability to tackle this problem. It's a question of life and death for the party."

Beijing's Cold War
The case against Bo centers on his recent turn as the party chief of Chongqing, another fast-growing Chinese metropolis. There his official monthly salary was around $1,600 — hardly enough to cover the luxury cars that his son with Gu, Bo Guagua, drove around Beijing and at Oxford and Harvard, where he studied. In Chongqing, Bo Xilai presided over a "sing red" and "smash black" campaign to promote Maoist values and combat organized crime. Just a few months ago, China's top leaders were praising Bo for the so-called Chongqing model of development, which stressed the dominance of the state sector as well as more equitable growth. Now Bo is being investigated for "serious disciplinary violations," accused of a casual disregard for the law and predilection for ordering torture in the 30 million-strong municipality he appears to have run as a personal fiefdom. Dozens of his deputies have been rounded up, say people briefed on the government's investigation. China's propaganda machine has been busy dismantling the carefully constructed personality cult around Bo, hinting that his vanity rivaled that of Mao Zedong at his most arrogant. "Bo has seriously violated Party discipline," said the People's Daily, the state mouthpiece, "causing damage to the cause and image of Party and State."

As China readies for a once-a-decade leadership transition that is set to see Vice President Xi Jinping replace President Hu Jintao in the fall, a purge within the nation's highest ranks comes at a singularly sensitive time. The central government in Beijing is walking a tightrope. It must convince the public that a figure as popular as Bo — among Chinese leaders, he was a rare communicator who knew how to deliver a snappy sound bite — deserved to be removed for his excesses. But it must also persuade a skeptical populace that Bo's alleged corruption was an aberration rather than a symptom of a diseased political system. Beyond Bo's ouster and hints of factional strife within a party that likes to present itself as a faceless front, little has changed publicly. "Bo has been brought down," says journalist Jiang, "but there's no sign of the political reform, like democracy and rule of law, needed to prevent a case like Bo's from happening again."

The Red Tide
The rise and fall of Bo, 62, has degenerated into a surreal soap opera in which unsubstantiated rumors compete with sensational tidbits leaked by people in Chongqing with hazy ties to Bo. Was British business consultant Neil Heywood really killed by cyanide at a Chongqing holiday resort? Could the reason for Gu ordering a purported hit have been a "conflict over economic interests," as China's state-run newswire Xinhua put it, referring to a possible dispute over his commission for supposedly helping funnel hundreds of millions of dollars abroad? Did Gu, whose legal clients included investors in projects approved by her husband, really demand that her close associates divorce their wives in order to prove loyalty to her? Did Bo approve an investigation implicating his wife in murder, only to change his mind hours later and order the fatal torture of two people involved in the case? Is all this rumormongering being exploited by an opportunist faction in the Communist Party determined to rid Bo's supporters from China's leadership?

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