Murder, lies, abuse of power and other crimes of the chinese century
WORLD | CHINA
In China these days, the last refuge of both scoundrels and heroes is turning out to be a U.S. diplomatic compound. Two unscripted but parallel dashes for safety have riveted the world and, more important, have affirmed long-foreshadowed plot points in the narrative of the 21st century’s would-be superpower: first, that the People’s Republic is in the hands of an elite riddled with corruption and nepotism, and second, that those who crusade for the basic legal rights of the powerless must on occasion deal with feudal repression. Those elements have always lurked amid the often dazzling spectacle of modern China. Now two desperate men knocking at the doors of U.S. diplomats have ensured that China’s shortcomings can no longer be ignored.
On Feb. 6, in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, where the air is thick with the bouquet of the famous local chilies, the U.S. consulate fielded an unexpected visitor. Wang Lijun, police chief of the nearby megalopolis of Chongqing, was an infamous man. Having made his name as a swashbuckling crime buster, in his spare time he patented a sexy winter coat for female cops, oversaw autopsies on executed prisoners and reportedly eavesdropped on conversations of China’s top leaders. For years Wang’s patron was Bo Xilai, China’s most charismatic politician, whose star seemed destined for the greatest heights of China’s ruling Communist Party. But Wang had just had a falling out with Bo and presented a rather different image of him to stunned U.S. diplomats, spinning a tale of intrigue and deceit, with the Chongqing party boss at its center. The most explosive allegation was that Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, a glamorous lawyer who had written a best-selling book called Winning a Lawsuit in the U.S., was complicit in the murder of Neil Heywood, a British business consultant who had been found dead in Chongqing in November. The reason? The Englishman, who met Bo and Gu years ago, may have asked for too big a cut for funneling part of the Bo family’s ill-gotten wealth overseas.
Then on April 27, in smog-choked Beijing, another Chinese fled into U.S. protection. Chen Guangcheng, a blind legal advocate who was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2006, had been under extralegal house arrest since 2010 after spending years in jail. His offense? Defending women in Shandong province who were forced to undergo abortions or sterilizations in a misguided application of China’s one-child family-planning policy. After scaling a wall under cover of darkness, he sneaked past the clutch of thugs who had guarded his stone farmhouse for years. He stumbled on for hours until, bloody and bedraggled, he rendezvoused with activists who spirited him to Beijing, 500 km away. In November, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged China’s leaders to stop persecuting Chen, one of China’s most respected activists. Suddenly, he was in the hands of the astonished Americans.
Wang’s stay in the U.S. consulate ended after 24 hours. He pleaded unsuccessfully for asylum, walked out and was whisked away by Chinese security personnel. But the brief episode set in motion the downfall of his patron Bo in China’s highest-level political purge in two decades. In mid-April, Bo was suspended from the ruling 25-member Politburo, curtailing the career of a political and media sensation who courted Western businesspeople in English even as he pursued political campaigns redolent of Maoist nostalgia in Chongqing. His wife has been named a chief suspect in the “intentional homicide” of Heywood, who may have been poisoned by cyanide at a Chongqing holiday resort. Wang was bundled onto a plane to Beijing and hasn’t been heard from since.
Meanwhile, after six days in U.S. custody, Chen left the embassy on May 2 and headed to a local hospital accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. The same day, Clinton arrived in Beijing for delicate economic talks. Intense negotiations between the Americans and Chinese had a precarious outcome: Chen would stay in China, reportedly being assured of his safety by the Chinese side. “I am pleased we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng’s stay and departure from the U.S. embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values,” Clinton said in a statement. “The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks and years ahead.” But that carefully calibrated compromise was immediately tilted when Chen told friends and media on Wednesday evening that he now wanted to leave China and that there had been threats against his wife if he remained in the embassy.
The fallout from these twin tales–that of a purged party boss and a courageous activist–will have profound implications for U.S.-China relations. The quests for refuge by Wang and Chen have dragged the U.S. into what Beijing refers to as internal affairs and could feed into the delusions of Chinese hard-liners who see America’s meddling hand everywhere. But more important, the consequences of the two cases may indicate the path China’s future leaders will take. Will they kick up political and legal reform? Or indulge in knee-jerk defenses of the party’s mandate to rule China? The audience in the country itself is now more engaged than ever. “These [two] events are like lava, these eruptions of disaffection that pop up like gushers,” says Orville Schell, head of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York City. “In an open society, when these things happen, nobody notices. But in a controlled society they take on enormous symbolic importance and thus can become very toxic.”
The trajectory of China at the dawn of the 21st century was supposed to be simple. An ancient civilization was reclaiming its rightful place on the international stage, reveling in its new status as the second largest economy in the world. This fall the country will begin a once-a-decade leadership transition that will likely see President Hu Jintao replaced by Vice President Xi Jinping, 58, a member of the Communist Party aristocracy whose father was a Red Army guerrilla turned proponent of the economic reforms that have transformed China. The leadership handover to a so-called princeling was to be solemn, momentous and, above all, a display of stability in a nation with a history of bloody transfers of power. The party had reinvented itself as an economic juggernaut that shielded China from the global financial crisis. Surely it could manage an orchestrated handover of power?
But the cases of Chen and Bo have pulled China off script. A leadership that prefers to shroud its decisionmaking in secrecy has been forced to deal with unexpected crises that speak to the manifold issues facing the incoming crop of communist rulers–massive abuse of power and corruption within party ranks, a stunning lack of rule of law in a nation obsessed with bureaucracy, and an increasingly restive, wired populace no longer content to accept the say-so of government propagandists. As the party struggles with damage control, the world has gotten a peek at the vicious infighting that belies the leadership’s preferred image of itself as a unified force. Says Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago: “There is a growing number of people frustrated with the government’s effort to maintain stability at all costs, and yet their voices have not been heard.”
The last time China was so riven was back in 1989. No one’s predicting a repeat of the Tiananmen tragedy. But this time around, what happens in China matters for the rest of the world beyond just the moral outrage over students gunned down by government forces. China is now the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt, the second biggest consumer of luxury products and the planet’s top buyer of gold and mobile phones. Its middle class will soon be larger than the entire American population. But China’s continued upward march depends on the machinations of a clutch of men who know they cannot indefinitely maintain the high growth rates they have used to persuade the country’s citizens to remain politically pliant. “Just as many Americans were beginning to wonder whether maybe the Chinese model does have some merit, maybe it’s more effective than our clumsy democracy, then these things happen,” says Schell. “It shows that China, too, has its dysfunctional side.”
No man exemplifies modern China’s contradictions–and curious turns of fate–more than Bo Xilai, 62. The son of one of the Communist Party’s Eight Immortals, Bo enjoyed a childhood of privilege. But his life was upended in 1966 when Chairman Mao Zedong unleashed the Cultural Revolution. Bo’s father was purged (although later rehabilitated), and his mother died under mysterious circumstances. Tossed out of school, Bo adapted to a new life as a fervent Red Guard; one version of events has him denouncing his father. Whatever really happened, Bo emerged from that chaotic period a fiercely ambitious man. After divorcing his first wife, he married Gu, the daughter of a revolutionary general. That seemed to cement his political pedigree, and he was dispatched to the coastal city of Dalian to test his leadership skills.
While there–and later as party boss of Liaoning province where Dalian is located–Bo came into his own. Unlike other, wooden Chinese leaders who mostly studied engineering in college, the former journalism student perfected the art of the sound bite. He positioned Dalian as a green, inviting city open for foreign business. Evidently enjoying the trappings of power, he liked to show off how he could start up a fountain in the main square below his office via remote control. But even as investment flowed in, Dalian residents whispered about the Bo family’s excesses. Dozens of his foes, from political rivals to nosy journalists, ended up in jail. His wife, meanwhile, was involved in business ventures that seemed to profit from her proximity to power.
Bo Guagua, their son, enjoyed an upbringing completely at odds with the ascetic virtues of communism. He was the first mainland Chinese citizen to attend the prestigious British boarding school Harrow, and he later completed an undistinguished turn at Oxford University (from which he was suspended for one year for “the academic reason of not working hard enough,” according to the university’s press office) before arriving at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2010. While at Oxford, Bo showed that he shared his father’s taste for political theater, coaxing martial-arts star Jackie Chan to appear with him onstage and cajoling other Chinese students to vote for him in an election for a leadership position at a university debating society. (He lost, even though, contemporaries say, he bought umbrellas for fellow students during a rainstorm and threw champagne-fueled parties.)
Since 2001, when China began allowing entrepreneurs into the Communist Party, the antics of the red aristocracy have fascinated and horrified the Chinese public–the multimillion-dollar houses abroad; the plush positions at state-owned enterprises; the expectation, as in a famous case involving the son of a top policeman, that they can just walk away from fatal traffic accidents. (Together, the richest 70 members of China’s rubber-stamp parliament are worth $90 billion, according to the Shanghai-based wealth monitor Hurun Report.) Yet during the same period, a sustained economic boom notwithstanding, the Chinese populace has watched wages decline as a percentage of China’s GDP. “This is the irony of China’s transformation,” says Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former China adviser to Bill Clinton. “The linkage of money and political power is intimate. If the Chinese Communist Party were called what it really is, it would be called the Chinese Capitalist Bureaucratic Party.”
After a smooth turn as China’s Commerce Secretary, Bo Xilai was dispatched in 2007 to Chongqing, a 30-million-strong mountain-ringed metropolis in southwestern China. There the Bo myth grew into legend, as he ordered a campaign of “singing red” (warbling Cultural Revolution-style ditties en masse to instill a sense of pride in Chongqing residents) and “smashing black” (cracking down on organized crime through the strong-arm tactics of police chief Wang). Even though he was technically only a governor of a faraway municipality, Bo garnered coverage from China’s state-controlled press that outshined that of many of the nine-member Standing Committee that rules China. In 2010, China’s presumptive heir, Xi Jinping, visited Bo’s fief and praised its model of development, which mixed paeans to income equality with socialist nostalgia. Bo fashioned himself into a populist strongman in a country where leaders tend to deflect attention and hide from the public. “If you’re in charge of the media, the courts, the police, all the way from the street sweepers to the skyscrapers,” says James McGregor, a Beijing-based senior counselor for consulting firm APCO Worldwide who has met Bo, “it’s probably hard not to think you’re above everything.”
But just as in Dalian, cracks appeared in the Bo facade. How could a government official whose monthly salary was only about $1,600 inveigh against corruption when his own family was living so luxuriously? What motivated a man whose early life was devastated by the Cultural Revolution to send mass text messages to local cell phones that repeated quotations from Mao’s Little Red Book? Was the much vaunted crackdown on Chongqing crime–which resulted in thousands of arrests and the execution of Wang’s predecessor as police chief–also a ploy to kneecap his enemies and flout the judicial process?
When Wang made his mad dash to the U.S. consulate, the whisper campaign against Bo gathered force. In Beijing the powers that be, who worried that Bo’s populism bordered on demagoguery, seized their chance: a man whose lieutenant had blabbed to the Americans surely could not be promoted in the fall to the Standing Committee. Bo, once touted as a new breed of Chinese ruler, a fitting leader for a resurgent nation, was finished. “Bo Xilai had great ambitions, but he misjudged China,” says Wang Kang, a Chongqing businessman who has emerged as a suspiciously knowledgeable source of information on the official Bo investigation. “He was trying to be a second Chairman Mao. Who can tolerate that?”
Ambition in a country that values faceless conformity among its rulers may have been Bo’s ultimate sin. But the details surrounding his fall are so sensational, they could hardly be imagined in a Hollywood screenplay, much less the rigid script the Communist Party was following in the months before the leadership transition. Gu stands accused of murdering Heywood, and Bo has been charged with “serious disciplinary violations.” Bo Guagua is in hiding in the U.S. The latest unsubstantiated rumors floating around the Internet, which, tellingly, have not been scrubbed by China’s scrupulous censors, speculate that Gu may have helped dispatch Heywood with poisoned soup. Foreign media and overseas Chinese groups have reportedly uncovered a global business empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars run by Bo’s brothers, Gu’s sisters and various cronies.
Clearly, China’s central leadership wants to delete Bo from its future, just as it clumsily airbrushed other purged leaders from group photos decades ago. But it must do so without implicating the entire Communist Party. “Absolute power brings absolute corruption,” says Guo Yukuan, a Beijing commentator. “It’s very common for Chinese officials of every level to be corrupt, and everyone knows this is a cost of the system.” Last year China’s central bank released a report that estimated that from the mid-1990s through the first half of 2008, up to 18,000 people associated with the state had absconded abroad with the equivalent of nearly $127 billion at today’s exchange rate.
Days after publication, the report was removed from the bank’s website, but not before Chinese bloggers seized upon it. Some 500 million Chinese are online, and with the official media muzzled by censorship, they are using China’s version of Twitter, Sina Weibo, to make themselves heard. “Before, there was only one channel of information in China,” says Yao Bo, who each day aggregates the juiciest Bo Xilai rumors he finds online, some of which have proved true. “The Internet is the best gift that God has given China.” The cat-and-mouse game between China’s censors and its online population can reach comic proportions. Over the past few weeks, Internet searches blocked in China have included Ferrari (the car that Bo Guagua was rumored to have once driven; it turns out he favors other brands like Porsche) and UA898 (the flight Chen Guangcheng was incorrectly rumored to have taken from Beijing into exile to the U.S.).
China’s leadership, spurred by all this online chatter, has had to react much faster to the Bo scandal than it is used to doing. It took years before China fully addressed the fact that one of its purged heirs apparent had died in a mysterious 1971 plane crash. But the other lesson from the Bo affair–that the party, by its own admission, is riddled with corruption and that immense abuse of power occurs at the highest levels of government–is less heartening. Says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a politics professor at Hong Kong Baptist University: “You can’t have checks and balances with a one-party system.”
If Bo Xilai is the epitome of the Communist Party’s excesses of power, then Chen Guangcheng is the voice of China’s powerless. Born among the fertile orchards of Shandong province, not far from Confucius’ hometown, Chen was blinded by a fever as a small child. His farm-boy roots and his disability were supposed to condemn him to a life of quiet servitude, perhaps as a masseur. But he had other plans. Even though he didn’t step into a classroom until age 13, he persevered and ended up studying traditional Chinese medicine at a big-city university. While there, he pushed boundaries, auditing law classes even though the blind were not allowed to major in that subject. Few paid attention to the handsome man in sunglasses sitting among them, but Chen believed in the sanctity of the legal system and was determined to understand how the law worked. After returning to his hometown of Linyi, he began representing locals who felt wronged by officialdom.
Chen’s leap from obscure legal activist to nationwide icon came in 2005. He had already been written up by local media as a heartwarming example of a disabled man overcoming obstacles. But that year he began representing hundreds of Linyi women who had been forced to undergo sterilizations or abortions by local family-planning officials. One woman, whom I met with Chen’s help, described how she had been strapped to a bed by officials who injected poison into her belly two days before her due date. A few hours later, she delivered a lifeless girl. The officials then placed the infant in a bucket filled with water to make sure she was dead.
What Linyi officials were doing was against China’s family-planning laws. By then, if Chinese families were willing to pay fines, they were technically allowed to have more children. But the political system in China is still set up so that promotions of local officials are compromised if they oversee places with large numbers of extra births. Chen was hopeful that he could persuade central-government officials to rein in the Linyi cadres. “He wants to use the system as it’s legally prescribed,” says Jerome Cohen, a co-director of New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute who helped Chen train 200 other legal activists from the Linyi region in 2005. “He’s not a dissident in that regard.”
But in September 2005, just hours after one of my meetings with him, Chen was picked up in Beijing by Linyi security officials who hustled him into a car and drove him home. From that point on, his life was spent under lock and key. In 2006, he was sentenced to four years in jail for “disturbing traffic” and “destroying property,” particularly inventive charges, since he was under house arrest when he supposedly committed those crimes. When he was released in 2010, he enjoyed no freedom. Instead, he and his immediate family were placed under a house arrest that the central government refused to admit was in place. When diplomats and activists tried to visit him, hoodlums repelled them with stones and fists. They also subjected Chen and his wife to beatings.
For months, Chen had been planning his escape from a confinement for which there was no legal justification. Staying in bed for hours at a time, he got the sentinels outside accustomed to his long hours out of sight. He had evaded the guards once before. In 2005 when he made his ill-fated journey to Beijing, local hooligans had tried to keep him at home. But he sneaked out at night because, as he told me, darkness confers an advantage to the blind. Throwing handfuls of pebbles into a cornfield to confuse the men pursuing him, he and a nephew made their way to a waiting car. This time, on the evening of April 22, the plan was similarly daring. Chen climbed a wall around his house and tiptoed past the security presence that he believes received $9.5 million in funding over the years. During the long hours of his escape, he fell as many as 200 times and injured his leg. “Chen was covered with mud and blood and water,” says Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid and a friend of Chen’s. “He was a very wounded man, except in spirit.”
For the Americans, denying asylum to former top cop Wang, with all his political baggage, probably wasn’t a tough call. But Chen, an unblemished character who has never called for the party’s overthrow, had told U.S. officials while under their protection that as long as his family was safe, he preferred to stay in China. Instead of the ambiguous existence of an exile, Chen wanted to continue his legal advocacy on behalf of people whose basic rights are enshrined in China’s constitution. “The masses see their only hope is to invoke legal protections,” says Cohen. “They have nothing. They’re not party members. They don’t have access. They have no money, so they can’t bribe people. Their only defense is words on a piece of paper.”
Now that he claims threats from the Chinese side, Chen may again show how vulnerable ordinary Chinese are to their rulers. In Beijing, Clinton had already hinted at the pitfalls of trusting a government that has a poor history of protecting activists. “Mr. Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment. Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task.” Ensuring them may be harder than ever.
Already Chen has become a political lightning rod in the U.S. “This Administration has been very weak on China,” says Representative Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican and longtime critic of the Chinese government. “I think they’re afraid of the Chinese.” Wolf’s statement and similar words by other critics reflect an enduring tension in U.S. foreign policy between protecting strategic interests and defending the democratic principles that Americans believe make their nation exceptional.
U.S.-China relations have enjoyed stability in recent months, despite Washington’s grumbling over Beijing’s vocal territorial claims in the South China Sea. Wang’s asylum attempt was resolved quickly, allowing Xi Jinping to enjoy a successful visit to Washington, where he and Obama bonded over a shared love of basketball. China went along with a U.N. condemnation of North Korea’s recent rocket launch, and Beijing and Washington appear willing to join–perhaps for the first time–in sensitive negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. And perhaps most significant, China has agreed to widen the yuan’s trading band, bringing hope that U.S. business can compete with Chinese exports made even cheaper by an undervalued currency. Yet Beijing-Washington ties are fragile. After Chen left U.S. custody, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said, “China requests that the U.S. apologize over this issue, thoroughly investigate this matter and hold responsible the people involved and guarantee that things like this will not happen again.”
But China has lost face during the Chen episode. A state obsessed with stability can only be humiliated when a blind man evades what is supposed to be the world’s most comprehensive security apparatus, one that received $100 billion in funding last year, according to official figures. Beijing has been responding to the crises by buttressing its legitimacy. In recent weeks, in response to the Bo imbroglio, the state-controlled media has foisted on a cynical public clumsy articles on the need for party unity. Then on April 24, the government’s mouthpiece People’s Daily published a speech by China’s security czar, Zhou Yongkang, insisting that the law in China “should always adhere to the party’s cause first … and determinedly resist forces hostile to China’s socialist political system, as well as erroneous political views in the West.” For China’s embattled corps of lawyers, this mockery of rule of law is nothing new. “The government often breaks the law, using the excuse of maintaining stability,” says Beijing lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, who has defended high-profile dissidents like artist Ai Weiwei.
What must surely spook China’s leaders is the passion of a motley group of activists who met online and were spurred by Chen’s case to pursue a justice that China’s legal framework promises. These are not veteran dissidents or political provocateurs like 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo or artistic agitator Ai. He Peirong, the woman who picked up Chen in Shandong this April and drove him to Beijing, is a mild-mannered English teacher who first went online in 2008 only to discover an alternate reality in which Tiananmen wasn’t just a square but a bloody stain on modern Chinese politics. Another of Chen’s supporters manufactures sex toys for export to the U.S.–and now also makes Chen Guangcheng bumper stickers.
But crackdowns inevitably ensue. “When there’s instability at the top, [China's] leaders worry that social groups will feel the freedom to act more boldly,” says David Zweig, a political-science professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. True to form, the dragnet widened in the days after the Bo and Chen affairs. Dozens of people connected to Bo have disappeared, presumably into official custody. Those who helped Chen’s escape, including He, were hustled away too. As China prepares to welcome its new leaders to the helm, the coming days will doubtless see further repression–and perhaps more scandalous details of high-level skulduggery.
For these grandchildren of China’s revolutionaries communist ideals don’t preclude a privileged lifestyle
Former Vice Premier
Student at Harvard Business School; former financial analyst at Morgan Stanley
Former Vice Premier
Student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; disputes claims that he has driven a red Ferrari
Former top Mao ally
Chief executive officer of China Power International Development Ltd.
Former Vice Premier
Studied in the U.S. and France; now a jewelry designer
Her acceptance to Stanford University has been questioned by Internet skeptics
Former Interior Minister
Bought a $32.4 million mansion on Sydney harbor
Former PLA marshal
Attended schools in Britain and Hong Kong; now a fashion designer
Former Vice Premier
Harvard undergrad; daughter of China’s next leader, Xi Jinping
In recent history, groups and individuals on the outs with foreign governments have sought refuge at U.S. diplomatic missions
CARDINAL JOSEPH MINDSZENTY
Sentenced to life in prison for treason in 1949, the Catholic leader was released during the Hungarian revolution. When the Soviets invaded, he was given asylum in the U.S. embassy, where he lived for 15 years as what Pope Paul VI called a “victim of history”
The Siberian Seven were members of two families seeking to emigrate from the Soviet Union to escape persecution. The worshippers rushed past Soviet guards into the U.S. embassy in Moscow, where they lived in a basement, sharing two beds. They were allowed to leave in 1983 and eventually ended up in the U.S.
Having been detained without charges for more than a year, Murphy Morobe and Mohammed Valli Moosa, leaders of the United Democratic Front, and Vusumuzi Philip Khanyile, chairman of the banned National Education Crisis Committee, took refuge for 37 days at the U.S. consulate in a downtown office building. On Nelson Mandela’s advice, they left, satisfied that they had publicized the detention of 1,300 other dissidents
The astrophysicist, whose ideas helped inspire pro-democracy protests, took refuge with his wife as the government cracked down in Tiananmen Square. They remained in the U.S. embassy for more than a year, after which they were allowed to depart via a U.S. Air Force transport plane. Fang died in Tucson in April 2012
Fearing arrest, Americans under investigation by Egyptian authorities sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in January. On March 1 they were permitted to leave Egypt after the government rescinded a travel ban on U.S. NGO workers and their bail was paid
PHOTO (COLOR): THE BLIND ACTIVIST Chen Guangcheng refused to be limited by disability and helped seek justice for women forced to undergo abortions
PHOTO (COLOR): THE BO CLAN The party boss, center, with his wife Gu Kailai and their son Bo Guagua
By Hannah Beech, Beijing
With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang; Jessie Jiang; Austin Ramzy, Beijing; Vanessa Ko, Hong Kong; Anoosh Chakelian, London and Jay Newton-Small, Washington