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From A 'Death' To A Crisis, Tracing China's Bo Xilai Scandal
Originally published on Sun May 26, 2013 5:25 pm
On Feb. 7, 2012, Wang Lijun, a former Chinese police chief, showed up at the American Consulate in Chengdu, China. He said his life was in danger, asked for asylum and said he had information implicating Bo Xilai, an important member of the Chinese political elite, in the murder of a British citizen.
The incident set off an international media deluge, and the ensuing scandal sent ripples throughout the ruling Communist Party that are still being felt.
The episode and its implications are chronicled in A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money and an Epic Power Struggle in China, by Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang. Huang spoke with Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, about the scandal, which he said "felt like a Shakespearean play."
On how the scandal played out on the Internet
"Weibo, or Chinese version of Twitter, has been playing a huge role in the Bo Xilai scandal. ... So, this is almost like the Chinese public and the world can watch it real time, whereas 10 years ago, when a scandal like this happened, people wouldn't learn about it until two or three months later, or sometimes a couple of years later."
On the legitimacy of the trial of Bo Xilai's wife
"The whole trial only lasted a whole day. And they started at 10 o'clock and finished everything by 5 o'clock. They wanted to get the trial done before the Communist Party congress in October, so they could clear the way — if the wife was convicted — it would justify the action to remove the husband from this important senior leader position. So the trial was conducted without the presence of any witnesses. The court did not consider any opinions of the defense lawyers, and so Gu Kailai was convicted very easily."
On the scope of the crisis
"It involved not only just China itself. It involved the British government and the Singaporean government and then the United States, and it became an international incident. Nothing is isolated now. And the most important thing is, you know, this Neil Heywood death [the murdered British businessman] not only just involved Bo Xilai, just one political figure. Hundreds of politicians have been affected."
On the scandal's impact on China's political future
"We try to point out the fact that the China model, which is development without democratic reforms, is not sustainable. Even the senior leaders in China right now, they start to recognize that. Look at this Bo Xilai scandal, because of this lack of transparency in the succession process. And then there is all kinds of political conspiracies, persecutions and murders. In order to get ahead, people have to do this. In other words, we feel like, if China does not introduce political reforms, and does not introduce open, fair elections in China, there will be more political earthquakes."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Consider this a bit of a Chinese political thriller because that's how this true life story of intrigue reads. It starts when a former Chinese police chief, Wang Lijun, walks into a U.S. Consulate and says he has information on the murder of a British citizen, and it ends with a scandal that shakes the very foundation of the Chinese Communist Party. The episode and the ensuing Bo Xilai scandal are chronicled in a new book "A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel."
It's co-written by Pin Ho and by Wenguang Huang who joins us now. Wenguang Huang, welcome to the program.
WENGUANG HUANG: Thank you very much.
LYDEN: So let's start with the death that's in the title of this book. Could you set the scene for us at the Lucky Holiday Hotel and walk us through the murder of Neil Heywood which made international headlines last year.
HUANG: The whole incident started on November 15, 2011 in a hotel in the suburbs of Chongqing, one of China's mega city with 32 million people. The hotel staff members, they found the body of a British man, and then they immediately called the hospital and also the police chief. And when they arrived, they reached the conclusion that he died of alcoholic overdose. They concluded the investigation without an autopsy.
LYDEN: So the wife agrees to close the case, and the case is closed in just a few days. But then, this becomes an international incident. Tell us what happens next.
HUANG: Three months later, the police chief of Chongqing, he showed up at the American Consulate in Chengdu and asked for political asylum. He claimed that Neil Heywood was actually murdered. Not only that, the murderer, allegedly, was Gu Kailai, the wife of Bo Xilai, the party chief of Chongqing. As you could imagine, this whole thing set off a political crisis.
LYDEN: So suddenly, this has gone to implicate all these high officials within the state, and on top of that, this is a very important time in the political calendar for the Chinese Communist Party.
HUANG: Exactly. In October 2012, the Communist Party was supposed to have the leadership transition. It happens once in every 10 years. And then the party chief of Chongqing, he was a very promising candidate. He was supposed to join the highest decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee. As you can imagine, when they found out that his wife had murdered the British businessman, the whole country was intrigued. And his political opponents, they jumped at the opportunity and got rid of him right before the Party Congress.
LYDEN: I'd like to go to the trial. We know that Neil Heywood is murdered. We know that Gu Kailai is convicted. This is not the kind of trial most Americans would think of. What happens at the trial?
HUANG: The whole trial only lasted a whole day. And they started at 10 o'clock and finished everything by 5 o'clock. They wanted to get the trial done before the Communist Party Congress. If the wife was convicted, it would've justified the action to remove the husband from this important position. So the trial was conducted without the presence of any witnesses. The court did not consider any of the opinions of the defense lawyers, and then so Gu Kailai was convicted very easily.
LYDEN: I just have this picture, new light of press conferences at which there are 400 reporters, which is an astonishing number - and not all of them Chinese, many of them from Taiwan or Hong Kong or other parts of Southeast Asia - and it's fascinating how this story makes its way to you and your co-author. How do you get your information?
HUANG: We got most of the information from senior government officials who wanted to leak out information. So another thing is from the Chinese internet. Weibo, or Chinese version of Twitter, has been playing a huge role in the Bo Xilai scandal. And the day when they - Wang Lijun escaped to the American Consulate, somebody saw the heavier presence of policemen outside the American Consulate.
They immediately twittered. Within a few hours, all the information was present on line despite the fact the government tried to close down some of the Twitter sites.
LYDEN: Or make the claim that he was just there for an important discussion or...
HUANG: Right. And then there was - the government even went out to say that he was on a vacation of (unintelligible) treatment. And people said, wow, that's kind of a very unique treatment, going to the American Consulate.
HUANG: So in other words, this is almost like the Chinese public and the world could watch it real time, whereas 10 years ago, when a scandal like this happens, people won't learn about it until two or three months later or sometimes a couple of years later.
LYDEN: What happened to Bo Xilai, the husband of Gu Kailai, who was slated to become the vice premier of China?
HUANG: Yes. At this moment, he's locked in an undisclosed location. He's waiting for trial. But we haven't seen anything because the reason was once the Party Congress is over, once the new leaders are taking over, they felt like he's no longer a threat.
LYDEN: This is considered to be one of the biggest challenges to the Chinese leadership since Tiananmen Square. And you write that Neil Heywood might be stunned, were he alive today, to learn that his death triggered all of this. Is this a correct judgment in your view?
HUANG: Yes, it is. It involved not only just China itself involved, the British government, the Singaporean government and then the United States, and this became an international incident. And the most important thing is this Neil Heywood death not only just involved the Bo Xilai, just one political figure. Hundreds of politicians have been affected.
LYDEN: It seems clear the party leadership knows that its validity is threatened. Would you say that this storm has played itself out, or are there going to be more scandals like this one?
HUANG: We try to point out the fact the China model, which is that development without Democratic reforms is not sustainable. Look at this Bo Xilai scandal, because this lack of transparency in the succession process. And then there is all kinds of political conspiracies, persecutions and murders. In order to get ahead, people have to do this. And in other words, we feel that if China does not initiate political reforms and does not introduce open, fair elections in China, there will be more political earthquakes.
LYDEN: You know, before we finish, I just want to ask about the Lucky Holiday Hotel itself. It's almost just the perfect theatrical place for this opera.
HUANG: It is. The main building itself looks like a cheap motel, and inside is like a very gaudy, American-Chinese restaurant, you know, with a big fish tank and painted red. And then I went in there, I talked to the attendants. They took me around, and I saw this chateau hidden in the trees. You have complete privacy. And so in a way, it was - I felt like I was in some kind of Hitchcock movies because it was late afternoon, and then it was fogged up, and the wind was blowing. It was - I said, wow, this is a very perfect setting for a murder.
LYDEN: Wenghuang Huang is the co-author, along with Ping Ho, of "A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel," and he joined us from WBEZ in Chicago. Thank you very, very much.
HUANG: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.