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The plot thickens

8 December 2012

9:00 AM

8 December 2012

9:00 AM

The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo: How a Murder Exposed the Cracks in China’s Leadership John Garnaut

Penguin Special ebook, £1.99

At last! At the age of 80, I have read my first digital book. According to Penguin, these brief ‘Specials’ are

written to be read over a long commute or a short journey, in your lunch hour or between dinner and bedtime, a short escape into a fictional world or … as a primer in a particular field, or to provide a new angle on an old subject. You can read on the move or in a spare moment for less than the price of a cup of coffee.

So what do you get from this Special? John Garnaut, an Australian journalist who specialises in Chinese affairs, describes here, in steamy prose foreshadowed by the sub-title, an example of the self-cannibalism that has wracked most communist regimes, and certainly the Chinese Communist Party almost since its founding in 1921.

Bo (pronounced Baw) Xilai, until his very recent ‘smashing’, as these dramas are termed in China, was a ‘princeling’, one of those Chinese leaders, or potential leaders, who are the sons and daughters of previous famous leaders — or ‘immortals’, as eight of them, including Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, are called. They have vast guanxi (connections)  with each other and with other leaders, and unless they fall — as Bo just has — they can soar all the way to the top, like Xi Jinping, China’s new party chairman and president-to-be.

It is a mark of the tumultuous nature of Chinese politics that until it was necessary to purge Bo, Xi Jinping (like Henry Kissinger) was an admirer. An egomaniacal provincial leader, with his base in Chongqing, one of China’s biggest cities, Bo had resurrected, according to Garnaut, a kind of ‘neo-Maoist’ iconography, making everything as Red as possible with Maoist songs and slogans. He seemed headed for the Politburo’s standing committee, the locus of ultimate power, perhaps even to challenge Xi.

Above all, says Garnaut:

Bo spun astonishingly complex webs of loyalty and patronage through the Party and its red-blood aristocracy. He was forever making introductions and performing personal favours …. and extended his princeling networks deep inside the military and across the strategic heights of power.


Bo’s son, Guagua, had gone to Harrow and later to Harvard, and his second wife, the rich and glamorous Gu Kailai, made a splash wherever she went.

Then late last year came the murder of the English businessman, Neil Heywood, a Harrovian who lived with his Chinese wife and children in Beijing, and had close enough relations with Bo and his wife to help their son Guagua enter Harrow. Heywood was found dead in a Chongqing hotel, no autopsy was performed, and he was promptly cremated in the presence of a junior Foreign Office diplomat who never saw a body.

It was officially stated that Heywood, who drank little, had died of alcohol poisoning. After months of British media frenzy, Bo’s once close ally and security chief, Wang Lijun, fled to the American consulate in Chongqing, claiming that Heywood had been murdered by Gu Kailai, and that he, Wang, had obtained a blood sample containing the cyanide that Gu had forced down Heywood’s throat.

The Americans, Garnaut writes, turned Wang over to the Chinese security services. Before long, Gu — and soon Wang himself — were tried for murder. At her stage-managed trial Gu, reading from an obviously dictated text, could be glimpsed on television confessing to murdering Heywood. China’s irreverent and sarcastic internet geeks, tens of thousands of them, derided the trial as a farce.

Soon Bo Xilai was accused of corruption, sexual scandal, and with being connected to the murder of Heywood. His once close allies, led by Xi Jinping, had turned upon him and the showily self-confident Bo, too, will soon be tried and made to disappear.

Garnaut introduces such a torrent of names and titles to this well-known story that I, who have been paying attention to Beijing politics for almost 60 years, had to flip back and forth to see who was who. His prose may disturb even the lunch-breakers and long-commuters seen by Penguin as the book’s readers.

On his first page Garnaut calls Bo a rock star, a poster boy and a magnet. Political changes are ‘game-changing’, and people are from their ‘old stomping grounds’. Sometimes his sentences defy even multiple readings:

It turned out that the name ‘Jia’ had been a police cover-up, which Jia Qinglin had taken as a factional frame-up, initiated by Hu Jintao’s most trusted  powerbroker, Ling Jihua. President Hu’s predecessor and nemesis, Jiang Zemin, saved up his information that the deceased driver was actually Ling’s son, not Jia’s, and detonated it to maximum effect.

Although Garnaut supplies many citations, he is prone to that besetting sin of some China-watchers — speculative assertions that sound factual, such as ‘It seems clear, however, that Neil Heywood knew too much.’ Which was what? Western correspondents in China are quoted about the Heywood affair as if they were well informed, although they, too, knew next to nothing, while their editors at home were baying for ever-hotter rumours.

Garnaut quotes, as well, the official news agency Xinhua as if it were Reuters or some other reputable wire service, instead of the voice of the Party. He praises the out-going Premier Wen Jiabao as a champion of democracy, for which there is no evidence, and the Party for ‘steering most of its 1.3 billion people out of poverty’, when this is true only for the urban elite. The gap between rich and poor in China, as the Gini coefficient shows, is widening.

Garnaut knows a lot about China and there are insightful sentences throughout his book like this: ‘For the first time the webs of power and money that bind and also divide China’s red aristocracy are being exposed for the world to see.’ But he has written too fast and too breathlessly; and for an audience that Penguin claims wants a painless read, he has stuffed in too many names and too much potted history.

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