Tough to be at the epicentre of power all your life, be raised to think about all the big things in China’s history and future, and then be relegated to a selection process which humbles those from such backgrounds.
Xi managed it but Bo Xilai did not. Books are written to explain such phenomena and the world’s media is left to try and create sense out of snippets of information that, if written in an airport novel would be seen as beyond normal life.
Probably the reality of what happened was far more simple than the situation appears by linking various aspects of what has proved to be the Bo story.
Most of the media approach and analysis focuses around Bo’s second wife, an apparently ambitious woman, both for herself and her son. Married men beware the second younger wife is summed up by the Chinese naming of such ladies as “tigers”.
It is quite feasible that the Gu drama went on mainly out of sight, and he left it to take its own course as he filled his time with the politics and challenges of China.
I tend to take this view but like everyone else I have no real knowledge. It is quite amazing to me that Heywood, with known connections to the world of intelligence was able to get so close in on a Chinese leading family. In all my 40 years, and my father’s 60 years we never had such close and intimate involvement with Chinese leaders or their families.
It is almost for that connection that I think Gu kept her life and these connections quite apart from Bo, but used his name endlessly to get what she wanted.
I recall when her son was threatened with a year out at Oxford being called by a Chinese friend who said – “Bo’s wife is shouting at me to get her son kept at uni, or it will embarrass Bo”
Note Bo’s name was used but the request for help came not from him but her pressure.
So my sense is she shamelessly used his name and connections to pursue her own ambitions, which is properly the subject of another story. I do not stand in outright condemnation of her, as ambition stoked by the reality of power is a well know aphrodisiac and drug. I also think he was very lacking in control over what she did and in whose name.
But the problem in China started in the 90’s as China opened up post Tiananmen, and the arrival of foreign joint ventures with multi nationals usually accompanied by overseas Chinese with tough sales targets, and where there was little law to manage their use of “incentives” . We stood back and watched as China began to descend into a world of corrupt practices, and, almost by definition, we had no idea of its scale.
All I knew was my father, who believed in New China returning, was very uneasy about the values of morals of those he came into contact with. It was this 1990’s China that bred much of the corruption that Xi is tested today to identify and eradicate. It is deep and bad.
There is little doubt that Bo’s wife and her friend, Mr Xu from Liaoning, crossed the line a long way . She behaved like the nouveau riche we have known many times in history and the game players of the West were happy to lighten her wallet and help the process, not of enlightenment, but of corrupting the core.
I doubt he benefited very much from this. The Bo I knew was a very ambitious man, determined to rise through the Party and do each job in the best way he knew. He was suave and good-looking, well dressed and amusing, but like Xi, he was well educated and sure of himself.
While many British seemed to be fooled by his appearance into thinking he was not a Marxist, and that his wife represented his ambitions too, my sense was that he was still very much a Marxist, and he knew Marx well. But more than that he saw the Chinese agenda as the realisation of the Chinese version of socialism.
Clearly he liked the trappings of power, the cars and the hotels, but he never seemed far from the Mission.
So when he was passed over in 2005 and dispatched to Chongqing, it looked like the curtains were closing on his rise to the Standing Committee. Xi and Li were elevated to the Standing Committee and he was not.
It was unlikely China could have more than two top leaders so it looked like the drawbridge had been raised. Except that stories kept emerging that the post 2012 top places were not finalised and Bo could still find a place in the top three.
As these stories developed so it was said that Bo had been sent to Chongqing to deal with two evil gangs with connections leading back to some of China’s earlier leading leaders. They used those connections, it was said, to peddle evil and power in Chongqing. And successive senior people sent from Beijing could not break them.
Well, the story goes, he did break them by toughening up the law and order, kind of like Mayor Koch, but without any regard to due process. Good and bad fell in the face of the onslaught he led to clean up Chongqing. He did what he was sent to do, and he did it all against the background of using traditional Mao forms of stirring the people of Chongqing to support him, with considerable success.
But his wife’s ambitions and contacts kept appearing and undermining his image, and the final decline of Gu and Heywood is now lost in the myths of time – will anyone ever know what really happened, except that the police chief ran to the USA embassy, and Bo’s friend and ally Zhou Yongkang appears to have tried to protect or save him, even mount a military style threat.
How could the Party and State allow an incident like that to bring all of China into public profile of almost ridicule and for him to be allowed to get away scot free?
So now he pays his price for challenging for senior leadership while allowing those closest to him to jeopardise China’s agenda and public image.
Whether guilty or not of the charges against him, there is no doubt he let China down.
But it still leaves the issue of which direction for China in the air. The Economic agenda or the Political agenda are sometimes put up as the alternatives he asked.
But I think that is a misrepresentation of the man. He was an avid Minister of Commerce who showed all the signs of wanting China’s economic agenda to succeed.
No he was not a politics in command Maoist calling for a return to the countryside, but he was prepared to use that rhetoric to bring Chongqing under control, and perhaps to use to launch his bid for Standing Committee status.
And he would likely have succeeded at that, and maybe more, if it had not been for his wife’s work and the unfortunate death of Mr Heywood, about whom we still know very little.
But a Bo in a top position would have been a tougher man for the West to deal with, not as a Maoist, but as a deep believer in the Chinese return . He was a tough negotiator for China – ask Lord Mandelson who was one of many who experienced how tough he could be.
We are losing a colourful figure, perhaps for ever, but I doubt he was corrupt so much as he believed he was destined to rule… And believed the ends justified the means.