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China’s Leadership Had ‘Knives Out’ for Bo Xilai

April 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
China's ruling Communist Party is trying to contain headlines about the scandal surrounding the once-powerful political leader Bo Xilai. Margaret Warner discusses implications for China and its internal politics with Orville Schell of the Asia Society.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on this scandal, which comes in a year of political transition in China, we turn to longtime China scholar and journalist Orville Schell. He now heads the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations.

And, Mr. Schell, welcome back to the program.

What led to Bo Xilai’s downfall? What did he do that earned him such powerful enemies?

ORVILLE SCHELL, director, Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations: Well, I think, quite apart from any charges of corruption which may be proven against him, I think his real affront was that he was incredibly flamboyant.

And rather than just cultivating a network of support within the leadership, he reached out and started cultivating support amongst sort of the populace in a very popular — or populist manner.

And this kind of very consensual scheme of leadership that we now have, where big leader couture is not emphasized, this, I think, was frowned upon and made him stand out, and ultimately, I think, marked him as someone who was going to be indigestible to the central leadership.

MARGARET WARNER: So, meanwhile, you have his wife, Gu Kailai, now who was in business, as well as a lawyer. How did her activities factor into both his rise and his fall?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, you know, the thing about every leader in China is that some are not corrupt and some are, but all of them have access to the two key ingredients of the ability to become wealthy, to property, because all property in China is state-owned and then leased to individuals or companies, and on the other hand to bank loans.

So every Chinese leader has what’s called a hotai, sort of a back network behind it, whether it’s family members, friends, people in their political faction. And those people all — everyone knows they’re in that network. And when they are up for a deal, usually that deal will get approved, thrown their way, simply per force of their relationship to the big leader.

And so his wife was sort of the nexus point between him and whatever deal she was cultivating out in the world at large. And from all that we can tell, it was substantial involvement.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Then we get to Neil Heywood, the 41-year-old British businessman who was found dead in his Chongqing hotel room. Who was he? How does he factor in?

ORVILLE SCHELL: He was a freebooting Western businessmen who knew Bo Xilai when he was mayor of Dalian, before he moved to Chongqing, this other — largest city in the world.

And I think he became friends with Gu Kailai, who’s Bo Xilai’s wife, and also befriended his son, helped him get into school in England, to Harrow, and ultimately to Oxford and then onward to Harvard. So this is all part of these sort of networks that accumulate around powerful leaders.

And I think, from all we can tell — and this is very lacking in transparency — Neil Heywood was sort of the go-between to the outside world for this strong network that Bo Xilai and his wife had cultivated.

MARGARET WARNER: Until something, it seems, perhaps went sour.

Well, now back to Bo Xilai himself. As you said, he was considered a populist. Was he challenging to the party establishment over ideology or the pace of market reform? Or was this strictly a just kind of power politics, you know, at a time that you’re seeing a transition in China?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, he was a very sort of dramatic, really to-the-podium-born, very sort of, I think, a theatrical kind of a political figure.

And in this world where the people who are on the Standing Committee, nine of them, of the Politburo tend to be very muted, and they tend to get ahead by being quiet, keeping their heads down, and just quietly going about their work, here was Bo Xilai sort of becoming the big, popular leader of first Dalian. And then he was the minister of commerce, and then in Chongqing, where he launched this sort of proto-Maoist movement to sing cultural revolutionist songs, and started attacking gangs in Chongqing, and really coming out on the side of the ordinary person, the common person.

And this was all a bit too theatrical, I think, for people back in Beijing. So, they had their knives out for him.

MARGARET WARNER: So now we’re at the — we are really in the midst of this every-10-year transition that they have in China. This is to be a new generation of leaders coming in, in the fall.

Is this a one-off case that then just gets set aside, or did this, I don’t know, expose some sort of serious in-fighting which may continue and mar what I think the leadership had certainly hoped would be a very smooth transition?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, of course, the leadership is hoping for a smooth transition. And they had one last time. So this is most unwelcome.

And, you know, so much of what happens in the central leadership comings and goings happens behind the veil, and then occasionally an arm or a leg will protrude, and every now and again, the veil will be drawn back for one tempting moment. And that’s what’s happening now.

And it shouldn’t be surprising that in this world where the system of politics is so poorly established, there is a lot of in-fighting, a lot of factional struggle that we don’t see. But now we’re getting a glimpse of it. And I think we have to understand that this, of course, is how things do finally get done.

Everything has to be slugged out, you know, behind closed doors. And, occasionally, it leaks out into the public, and it has a very destabilizing effect. And the party, I think, is extremely upset by having this become so public, and particularly, I should say, with some foreign involvement, which is quite embarrassing.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean because he went — because the police chief went to the American Embassy?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, not only did he go to the American Consulate in Chongqing and release a lot of documents, but, of course, now center stage of the whole drama is a dead Brit, and, how did he get dead? That’s the question. And fingers are now the pointing at Bo Xilai’s wife.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Orville Schell, thank you once again for helping us understand China. Good night.

ORVILLE SCHELL: Pleasure.