You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave.
The Eagles, Hotel California
“Unfair!” “Unjust!” Rising tiger turned crouching criminal Bo Xilai just apparently had the last word(s) as he was found guilty on all three counts of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power in China’s show trial of the early 21st century, and sentenced to life in prison.
Way more enticing was what was censored by the court’s microblog. Before being taken away by those two giants the chief Chinese Communist Party (CCP) choreographer placed to make the six-foot, two-inch tall Bo actually look small, he had time to say, rather shout, “The decision was not based on facts. The court is neither open nor just and didn’t take the points made by my defense lawyers and me.”
Technically, Bo is correct. China’s show trial of the early 21st century had nothing to do with facts – but with an unbelievably nasty power struggle at the highest levels of government.
Essentially, ever since a connection was established between Bo – actually his wife, Gu Kailai – and the suspicious death of dodgy British businessman Neil Heywood in Chongqing, the anti-Bo faction at the heart of the CCP leadership was confronted with two options.
1. They could accuse him of turning Chongqing into an “independent kingdom” and much worse; trying to take over the Central and Legal Commission (so he could control armed police), and thus mount a coup against the new party secretary and then president-to-be Xi Jinping.
2. Or they could accuse Bo and Gu Kailai of bagging millions of yuan via corruption and transferring the loot overseas.
They went for option 2. But not before then premier Wen Jiabao delivered yet another nail in Bo’s future political coffin – insisting to the National People’s Congress in 2012 that Bo was trying to revive the Cultural Revolution, thus hurling China back into its recent troubled past.
I’d rather croak than face the Commission
If only famed movie director Zhang Yimou would be allowed by the CCP to script and direct the Bo movie. Historical precedents are rich. The key character who led to Bo’s downfall is a kuli – a term coined by Chinese historian Sima Qian 2,000 years ago, referring to imperial officials who went medieval in the torture and hardcore violence department to help their masters stay in power. The kuli in question is Bo’s former police chief Wang Lijun (also jailed). Kulis in China usually were disposed of by their masters when they became a liability. Bo had no such luck; Wang was wily enough to engineer his downfall.
Another key character in the movie would be former president Hu Jintao – he of the perennial, immobile cold cucumber expression. Hu was fond of Bo’s leftist ideology – as in the “Singing Red, Smashing Black” campaign in Chongqing – and was a Mao nostalgic. Hu calculated that the rise of Bo – an unpredictable wild horse – would be perfect to control the powers of his successor in the Middle Kingdom throne, Xi Jinping, who happened to belong to a different faction inside the CCP. So if Xi was kept in check, the ones who profited would belong to Hu’s faction.
Bo had been a part of the then 25-member Politburo since 2007. You only get to the Politburo if you’re vetted by all the principals, after extensive investigations, and with a unanimous agreement.
Bo’s key ally in Beijing was Zhou Yongkang – who wanted Bo to become his successor at the apex of power, the Politburo Standing Committee. Zhou’s son was involved in a series of businesses in Chongqing and was “protected” by Bo. Make no mistake; the CCP is now going after Zhou, big time.
Zhang Yimou would need an ace Scorsese-style montage in his movie to show how all of the CCP’s key bodies, such as the Central Organization Department, the Central Propaganda Department and the Central International Liaison Department, are all housed in Beijing buildings with no signs whatsoever, no street numbers and even no listed phone numbers. They operate in a sort of black void. All major decisions are “secret”. And any personal information about any of the principals involved is a state secret.
Sinister does not even begin to describe the most secret of these bodies, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – a sort of Chinese equivalent of Internal Affairs. Their network spreads out all the way to townships. They are in charge of monitoring the behavior of some 80 million CCP members; that’s roughly 16% of China’s population.
Every investigation of any official above the rank of vice-minister must be approved by the Politburo. First, there’s a “deliberation”. This means that once an official is accused, he is already guilty; the same applied in Bo Xilai’s case. No wonder the number one mantra among the CCP elite is, in a rough translation, “I am not afraid of God, I am not afraid of ghosts, but I am afraid of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.”
Who killed Heywood?
And then, in our Zhang Yimou movie, there would be the Black Widow – actually a dysfunctional wife and mom, Gu Kailai who, according to a wildly popular Chinese internet theory, did not even poison Heywood; he was only drunk when she left that fateful, turgid room in the Lucky Holiday Hotel in Chongqing (here we find David Lynch overtones). So in the end the actual killer may have been kuli Wang, who would then have enough clout to control Gu Kailai and blackmail Bo Xilai.
Add to the mix Heywood’s alleged connection with British intelligence, which happened to be an “open secret” in Chongqing. A British MI6 agent in the heart of a Chinese princeling’s family; what’s not to like?
Gu Kailai anyway was clever enough to understand that in her show trial, the top target was actually Bo Xilai – even though his name was never mentioned. She was accused of a murder she may not have committed. And she made a deal with the CCP; she would face the consequences, as long as her son, Bo Guagua – currently studying in Columbia in New York – was spared.
The plot thickens when we learn that Bo did not face only his kuli nemesis, but actually two kingmakers, way better placed; then premier Wen Jiabao, and Bo’s former protector, former president Jiang Zemin.
Wen was very much aware of Bo’s hardcore tactics against his political enemies and businessmen who crossed him in Chongqing. Wen’s motivation to get rid of Bo was directly linked to protect himself and the interests of his (very greedy) family relatives before his term expired in 2013. Yet even after Bo was expelled from the party in 2012 and accused of being a criminal, Wen was not spared – via a New York Times report on his family’s astonishing wealth.
As for the extra-cunning Jiang Zemin, he was always a master in using the dreaded Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to enhance his power and get rid of any opposition. Jiang was determined to clear the way for Xi Jinping. Jiang and his gang purged all of Hu Jintao’s allies in the Politburo and placed his own allies – thus extending his behind the curtain influence until at least 2022. Bo Xilai – too much of a loose cannon – simply could not be trusted.
The Politburo Standing Committee now has only seven members, instead of nine (average age – 63.4 years). The rationale is that it will become “more efficient”, with less fighting among factions. The seat formerly held by Zhou Yongkang – the next target of the new leadership – no longer exists. Zhou controlled no less than law enforcement, the judiciary and national security; his budget was bigger than the PLA’s – the Chinese military. Now these attributions will be spread out among other Politburo members.
Life at the Bo hotel
The bottom line; if this was really about corruption, the overwhelming majority of the CCP leadership would have to be on trial – as corruption permeates virtually every level of party and government business in China.
Bo and his lawyers have 10 days to file an appeal. Nothing will come out of it. Yet it won’t exactly be a “life” sentence. In two years, in case Bo has made an “extraordinary contribution”, the sentence may be commuted to 15-20 years. From the point of view of the CCP leadership, the only thing that matters is that Bo won’t be released before the 20th party congress in 2022 – when current President Xi Jinping will “retire” as party chief.
Bo’s new digs will be at Qincheng prison, in the hills north of Beijing (no barbed wire, no watchtowers). Bao Tong, a former secretary to the Politburo Standing Committee who spent seven years in Qincheng because he was against the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen, has been having a ball telling Western media it’s “like a five-star hotel”.
This means a 20-square meter cell (actually bigger than subdivided flats in Hong Kong); milk in the morning, soup and two dishes for lunch and dinner; no need to wear an orange jumpsuit; but total monitoring – with all “activities” directly reported to the CCP’s central committee. It’s like being a Mob boss in jail in the US; whatever they want, they get. The difference is the CCP is the decider.
So welcome to the Hotel Bo Xilai; you can check out any time you like, but you may only leave after 2022, to be placed under house arrest for the rest of your days. According to Bao, Bo will live “next to a lake, or by the sea”. Bo Xilai may not fulfill his dream to ascend to the Politburo Standing Committee. But he could always flirt with something more glamorous; to pen a Chinese version of Breaking Bad, and to get Zhang Yimou to take it to the limit.