Friday, April 13, 2012

A Murder story- Chinese style

Over last six or even more months, an intriguing drama is being played at the national level in China. I am saying intriguing, because till the very last, it was not even known who are the characters or actors. Leave aside the hero or villain details. Betrayal, graft, Power, money, murder suspicions, the drama has everything that would make it a Hollywood or a Bollywood thriller. Let us start from the beginning.
Act 1- Scene 1
In the month of November 2011, a 41 year old British businessman, Neil Heywood was found dead in a hotel room in the Southwest Chinese city of Chongqing, which happens to be a national central city with a directly controlled municipality just like Beijing. The autopsy results showed that he had very high levels of alcohol in his blood. This was determined as the reason for his death and he was quickly cremated.

To Neil Heywood's friends and relatives in Britain, the circumstances at the time of his death appeared rather mysterious as he was known to be a very moderate drinker or as suggested by some friends a teetotaller. Since there was no other reason for his death, it was assumed by the acquaintances and relatives that he must have suffered an heart attack, just like his father in 2004, which had turned fatal. This was assumed to be the reason of his death and no foul play was suspected. There is only one more small detail, which we must be remember.. Neil Heywood was closely linked to Mr. Bo Xilai, the charismatic former party leader of the southwest city of Chongqing.

Act 1 -Scene 2
Now we move to the city of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province and which is about 280 KM from Chongqing. US Government has a consulate here in this city. On 6th February 2012, former Chongqing police chief and vice-mayor Wang Lijun, a deputy and close ally of the southwestern city's leader, Mr Bo Xilai, suddenly flies to the US consulate in Chengdu. He has a meeting with US consular officials and asks for political asylum in the US. The affair is a huge embarrassment for the Chinese Government. After some hectic behind the screen activities, Wang Lijiun on his own volition, decides to leave US consulate. Following his departure from the consulate, Wang is immediately seized by central security agents and is flown to Beijing, in the company of Qiu Jin, vice minister of the Ministry of State Security.
Just 4 days before his escape to US consulate, Wang Lijiun has been sacked from his security post and is posted as an officer overseeing municipal education, science, and environmental affairs, a virtual demotion.

To understand the significance of this unfolding drama, we should really delve into the pasts of the Chongqing's charismatic party leader Bo Xilai and his trusted deputy or right hand man Wang Lijiun.

Bo Xilai was born to Bo Yibo, one of the Eight Elders of the Communist Party of China, Bo Xilai is known as one of the "princelings" in Chinese politics. His father fell from favour in 1965 and was purged from the party and spent next 12 years in jail. His mother was probably beaten by red guards during cultural revolution. Bo Xilai himself was imprisoned fro 5 years. In 1976 his father was politically rehabilitated and in 1979 was made vice premier. Bo Xilai himeself graduated from Peking University and joined the Communist party. Slowly rising in the ranks he was made acting mayor of the city of Dalian in 1992. In 2001, because of a corruption scandal in the Liaoning province, the ruling Governor was sacked and Bo Xilai was promoted to that post. Here he came into contact with Wang Lijiun, who was then the director of public safety.

After serving as Minister of commerce, he was finally appointed to the prestigious post of Mayor of Chongqing in 2008. Wang Lijun followed him there as his police chief. On 10 July 2009, Bo launched his famous campaign against gangs with Wang as his top enforcer. Wang played a central role in the "strike-hard" campaigns in Chongqing, which saw 1,544 suspects arrested in what may have been the largest crackdown of its kind. Close to 6,000 people, amongst whom were wealthy businessmen, government advisers, crime bosses and senior police officers have been arrested in Wang's anti-crime campaigns since 2009. Bo Xilai's actions made him extremely popular and a hero in Chongqing. When he became Chongqing chief, he gained an ex- officio seat on the Politburo, China's effectively ruling council. for being the party chief in one of the four direct-controlled municipalities. After this he was widely tipped as a likely candidate for joining top ruling council of China, Standing committee of the Politburo.
Bo Xilai had married Ms. Gu Kailai, a divorcee in 1986 and their son Bo Guagua was born a year later. Ms. Gu is a lawyer and a graduate from Pekin University and practiced law. With this background information we can move now to the next act of this drama.
Act II- Scene I

On March 14, 2012, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao slams Chongqing leaders over the scandal, in his annual press conference with local and foreign journalists in Beijing. It is a rare public rebuke in elite politics. It is clear that Mr. Bo Xilai,s career as a superstar politician is now on the wane. Next day Bo Xilai is removed from his post as chief of Chongqing. He still continued to be a member of Politburo, a clear sign of the political strife at the top and also support for Bo. It still remains to be seen how the plot resolves so that a powerful political personality could be purged by building a case against him.

Act II- Scene II
Almost six months afterwords the death of British businessman Neil Heywood, Great Britain suddenly decides on March 25, 2012, to request Chinese authorities to further investigate the death. Rumours start circulating in China, that Neil Heywood was very close to the Bo family and he was ordered poisoned by Mr Bo's wife, Ms Gu Kailai, after a business dispute.

Act II- Scene III
A close business friend of Mr. Bo Xilai and chairman of China's Shide group; Mr. Xu Ming suddenly disappears on March 15 soon after Mr. Bo Xilai has been eased out from his Chongqing post. On March 31, Police announce that the Chinese Tycoon has been detained by them on suspicions of corruption. On April 6 the reasons for his arrest come out. It is announced that he has been involved in irregularities in a massive land deal and alleged match-fixing in football. He bought the land via a firm registered in Chongqing in 2009.

The stage is now set for the final act to purge Mr. Bo Xilai and his wife from Public life and possibly put them in jail. On April 10th 2012, police announce that at the request of British foreign office the death of Neil Heywoods has been reopened. It is now considered that he has been murdered by alcohol poisoning and the Mr. Bo Xilai's wife is named as a suspect. Just a month ago, Mr. Bo Xilai had defended his wife at a public conference saying that his wife was just an ordinary housewife, who has given up her law career for sake of him. There are suggestions that Heywood, a cheerful, rugby-playing man and fluent Mandarin speaker, who was educated at the private Harrow School in London, helped Bo's son Bo Guagua find a place at the prestigious school. The Chinese media say that conflict over economic interests had arisen between the Bo family and Heywood. Ms. Gu, who has been said to be suffering from severe depression and paranoia was angered by Mr. Heywood by refusing her request that members of the family's inner circle divorce their wives and swear an oath of loyalty. According to his friends, Heywood was under great strain, smoked more, lost his hair and gained weight as he was put under "intolerable pressure" from the family, and planned to leave China. The final climax scene of the drama also takes place on April 10 Mr Bo Xilai is finally suspended from the Communist Party's Central Committee and Politburo.

This is how politics runs in China. There are many questions here in the case such as Why Mr Heyword's death was considered natural in the first place? Or on whose instructions did Mr. Wang run to US consulate and on whose advice he decided to hand him over to Beijing? Why was Mr. Xu arrested? It is impossible to find answers to most of the questions as Chinese law and administrative , systems are extremely secretive. One thing can be certainly said that total lack of checks and counter balances, which are present in a democratic society, make it very easy for any autocrat in China to completely control and muzzle out any unpleasant truths.

We may never know whether this was a real crime story? and whether Mr. Bo and Ms. Gu are heroes or villains? It is impossible to understand that Mr. Bo, a rising political star and a person who became popular on a platform of his actions against crime gangs, would sacrifice his future by getting involved in such matters. There must have been bigger forces in play.

The murder story ends here, but it leaves many questions unanswered.

13th April 2012


  1. Thank you for this very informative and interesting blog post. I have seen bits and pieces about this in the U.S. media but had not paid much attention as I know very little about Chinese politics. I have also enjoyed your article about the Bactrian treasure.

    1. Kay
      Many thanks for your response. Please keep writing in the future also.