‘You can’t imagine how insecure it makes our politicians when they consider that they haven’t been elected.’ The man in the Savile Row suit and the hand-made shirt gave me a shrewd grin. Even the price of his haircut would have kept a Chinese farmer going for a year. ‘What’s the answer?’ I had to whisper, because Tony Blair was at the lectern, going on about how important China was.
The man beside me shrugged and spread his hands. His name was — is, of course, but since his arrest people talk about him in the past tense — Bo Xilai, and I’d just bumped into him again after meeting him some years earlier. He was China’s minister of trade, and seemed to be heading for the very top.
In a few words he’d set out the problem for China’s Communist leaders. The sand is shifting under their feet, the old landmarks are changing, and they don’t possess the legitimacy of being elected. Seven of the nine top leaders are due for the traditional once-a-decade clear-out this autumn, but a smooth transfer of power will be harder for two reasons. First, the Bo scandal: his wife has been accused of murdering the British businessman Neil Heywood, and Bo himself has been playing the leftist card. Secondly, the escape of the blind political activist Chen Guangcheng from house arrest to the American embassy. The first has reopened some familiar political divisions, while the second has turned the rule of law (or lack of it) in China into an international issue.
Just when President Hu Jintao and the premier, Wen Jiabao, ought to be getting ready to go peacefully into semi-retirement beside the Forbidden City, things have turned nasty. And, as Bo Xilai hinted, it’s times like these that remind the top people in the Communist party that they aren’t there because the people of China have chosen them; they’re there because Mao Zedong grabbed power in 1949 and his followers have never let go.
Chen Guangcheng and Bo Xilai couldn’t be more different. Chen is a civil rights activist, whom the Hong Kong media like to call ‘the barefoot lawyer’; Bo is rarely seen in public without his John Lobb boots. Chen organised a case against the government of Linyi, in Shandong province, for the brutal way it treated couples who had more than one child. Blind from childhood, he picked up enough legal knowledge to represent the people who came to him for help. In 2006 he was sentenced to four years for ‘organising a mob’; something Chinese Communists dislike as much as 18th-century British land-owners did. He was under house arrest in Shandong until 22 April, when he shinned over a wall, got past a dozen guards and travelled the 500 miles to the American embassy in Beijing; with a little help from his friends, of course.
Bo Xilai, by contrast, is Communist aristocracy. His father, Bo Yibo, was a close friend of Mao. But he was a reformer, and backed Deng Xiaoping, who created the gigantic economic power China has become. While Bo senior was alive, Bo junior was fireproof. But the old boy died in 2007. Bo junior lost his protection, and any sense of caution.
When I met Bo Xilai during Tony Blair’s Beijing visit in 2005, he was clearly hoping to put down his marker for a place on the Party’s Politburo Standing Committee. In November 2007 he was promoted to be Party boss in the world’s biggest municipality, Chongqing. Chongqing was hugely corrupt, and he had the job of cleaning it up.
He succeeded, up to a point. But he used some pretty unpleasant methods, and his police chief finally escaped to the Americans. Bo also veered to the populist left, implicitly criticising the glaring divisions in Chinese society. If there’s one thing that alarms the top people in the Party more than anything else, it’s signs of division. No one of Bo’s age and over can forget the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four and the battle for reform.
I first met Bo in 2000, when he was the top man in the port city of Dalian — known in the bad old days of warlordism and foreign intervention as Port Arthur. He was 49, a princeling who liked having everything his own way. Still, there was something pleasant and even innocent about him. On a console table on the balcony outside his enormous office he had installed switches that could change the colour of the jets of water throughout the city centre. It was like a municipal train-set created for his personal enjoyment.
Another group of switches enabled him to choose which of half a dozen available tunes would be played over the city’s loudspeakers. The tunes were all Scottish. Bo Xilai’s affection for things British, which later featured in his choice of tailors and in his decision to send his son to Harrow and Oxford, was there at an early stage in his career. Perhaps that’s why I liked him too.
I was in Dalian for Newsnight, and we made a film about him. I remember asking him to change the fountains several times, and switch Scottish songs again and again. When I met him five years later, he was nice enough to say that it was our film which had persuaded the Party bosses that he could deal with the western media. He become minister of trade as a result.
After he went to Chongqing, I had the occasional message from him, but only got round to visiting the place two years ago. By that time Bo had become a controversial figure, who had introduced old Maoist elements into Chongqing: kids would go out into the countryside and sing songs from the bad old days. And he, the ultimate ‘have’, was siding with China’s have-nots. He refused to see me, and he had us followed by plainclothes men wherever we went.
It was only then that I remembered how, not long before, a reporter from a Hong Kong Chinese-language newspaper had come to see me in London, and had somehow turned our interview into a Q-and-A about Bo Xilai. She left me her card, but when I Googled her newspaper I found it didn’t exist. Maybe Bo had sent her, checking to see if I were planning an exposé of his reign in Chongqing; or maybe she’d been sent by some agency of the Chinese government, to see if I had anything useful on Bo.
This autumn, when the leadership changes, will be critical for China’s future. Study Times, the journal of the Central Party School — a remarkably liberal institution, which teaches its students that they should be the servants, not the masters of the people — has been warning that the reform effort in China lacks any real driving force. It was clearly referring to the new president-apparent, Xi Jinping. When he visited America recently he seemed distinctly ineffectual. Genuine reformers like Premier Wen Jiabao have only got a few months to change things; nowhere near enough.
And the leaders are nervous. Back in 2005, Bo thought it was because they lacked legitimacy. Seven years later, he’s been doing his bit to make them more nervous still.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor.