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Murder Scandal Causes Political Fallout in China’s Communist Party

July 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A year ago, Bo Xilai had been a rising Chinese politician in Chongqing Party. But all that changed after his wife was implicated and now indicted for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. Margaret Warner talks to the Atlantic's James Fallows about the impact the trial will have on Chinese leadership in the near future.

MARGARET WARNER: And, for more, we turn to James Fallows, national correspondent for “The Atlantic,” formerly in China. His latest book is “China Airborne.”

And, Jim Fallows, thank you for coming.

JAMES FALLOWS, “The Atlantic Monthly”: My pleasure.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what do you make of this announcement, its significance, its timing?

JAMES FALLOWS: I think the announcement that she has actually been formally indicted for murder, we have seen that coming for quite a while.

The story as a whole is just incredible. A year ago, nobody would have predicted this. So she will go on trial soon.

Presumably, she will be convicted. Her lawyers are not even really allowed to argue her innocence. And so no one knows whether she will get the death penalty or not.

MARGARET WARNER: So, fair to say this won’t be an American-style trial, capital case in which you have got all kinds of lawyers and pleadings and trial and appeals?

JAMES FALLOWS: Right, there is no jury. Judges, rather than jury, do the verdict.

And the lawyers will argue fairly narrow grounds. Essentially, they will say she was concerned for her son’s welfare. And that is why she should be punished in some way other than sentenced to death.

MARGARET WARNER: So what — let’s step more broadly. What has been the political fallout from this for the Communist Party, for China?

JAMES FALLOWS: It’s enormous, because six months ago — or maybe a year ago — most people would have thought that Bo Xilai, the husband of the now indicted Gu Kailai, was really a rising politician.

He had been expected to be one of the members of the Standing Committee, which is essentially the rulers of China when the transition happens later this year.

And he was pioneering a kind of Chinese politics significant in two ways. One is reviving some old red era, sort of cultural revolution era patriotism in Chongqing.

And the other is seen as kind of a standing up for the people in China who had been the losers in the economic revolution of the last 30 years. And so he was really a significant figure.

MARGARET WARNER: So did the dominant wing in the Chinese party leadership see him as a threat?

JAMES FALLOWS: I think there are — it’s hard to say which wing is really dominant.

There’s a number of cleavages we see here. One is simple factional politics, people around him versus people who are around other politicians.

Then there is the reformer versus old sort of red type of interests, where the current premier, Wen Jiabao, was seen as being more in favor of continued liberalization, and Bo Xilai was seen as being more hard-line old communist.

Then there is the corruption angle, where his line — Bo Xilai’s line in Chongqing had been anti-corruption, and yet now all the stories coming out about him suggest sort of a tip of an iceberg of Communist Party corruption more generally.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, has this been threatening to the party in terms of what it either told the public or confirmed to the public about corruption in the highest levels and high living in the highest levels?

JAMES FALLOWS: I think one reason almost everybody who has paid attention to this case is so fascinated by it is it really is this great historical drama novel of everything big that is happening in China is involved in this, that we do have the last 30 years of economic success with all of the strains, almost Dickensian strains being portrayed coming together in this person.

And so if there are suspicions by the average people in China being hurt now by inflation and unemployment and losing their jobs and losing their land that people at the very top have been getting even more of the country’s growth than they thought, that is one of many problems for the party.

MARGARET WARNER: And they often do it, not that the official himself necessarily takes bribes, but these wives often have unusually lucrative jobs.

JAMES FALLOWS: Yes, indeed. Yes.

If you know — it’s often the case — Mr. Bo’s salary as the leader in Chongqing was modest, but he had, it turns out now, huge holdings. His brothers were gigantic businesspeople too. And his wife had apparently a business empire.

She now is being cast as — in some of the Chinese media, as the evil genius here, which is another not simply Chinese, but human trait if we think back to “Macbeth.” So that is one theme that is being set up there.

MARGARET WARNER: A kind of stock character.



Now, nothing has been said about the fate of Bo Xilai, other than he is under party investigation on something like discipline matters.

JAMES FALLOWS: Yes, yes, and possible corruption.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us a flavor of what that must be like.

JAMES FALLOWS: Well, he has not been in the news for quite a while, and nobody knows exactly where he is.

And there are fascinatingly opposite theories about what is going to happen to him. One is that his wife’s indictment and presumable conviction will be — will soon bring him down, his son will be taken down with him, et cetera.

Another is that his wife will be peeled off enough from him that she will be the evildoer. He will be the victim of her transgressions. And it’s possible there are people who still support some of his policies. So, conceivably, he might be rehabilitated, although that seems more a long shot.

I think nobody — I would love to know where he is now and what he thinks. But that’s not known.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, before we go, how does this relate to the leadership transition that is going to take place probably in October in this fall meeting and to the next — presumed next leader of China?


I think that the main point — we could say a lot, but the main thing to say is the world’s second largest economy and most populous nation is going through a once-a-decade leadership shift. And so little is known about the fundamentals there. It’s more like the selection of a pope than it is the transfer of power in other large nations around the world. That is part of what makes it all so dicey. We know so little about the process.

MARGARET WARNER: But was he — was Bo Xilai considered an upstart who was essentially challenging the — you called them factions that want to have this very smooth transition and put this certain team in?

JAMES FALLOWS: Yes, I think that, if there had been no corruption and no murder charge, presumably, he would have been part of the transition and part of the Standing Committee, not the new president, but part of the next sort of — the next cadre after that.

So the very fact of the tumult surrounding him makes the transition more difficult and means we’re all going to be watching it with intense interest.

MARGARET WARNER: We certainly will.

Well, Jim Fallows, thank you.

JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you.á