Murder adds twist to Bo thriller

2012-04-12Asia Times

BEIJING - In a new development in China's greatest political thriller since the time of Lin Biao, who died under mysterious circumstances after a failed coup against Mao Zedong in 1971, on April 10 Bo Xilai was expelled from the politburo and the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and put under investigation by the party's disciplinary commission. He had been already ousted as CCP head of the megalopolis of Chongqing.

It is the definitive political end for the princeling - offspring of a revolutionary - who until months ago seemed destined to rise to the pinnacle of power and who was trying to impose a political "neo-Maoist" agenda in China. But it is not yet the end of a story that has many disturbing new implications.

The Chinese leadership, for the first time in party history, now feels compelled to actually keep the public informed of developments in internal decision-making because of external factors. Beijing is aware in fact that Wang Lijun - Bo's former right-hand man and police chief of Chongqing, whose attempted escape to the American consulate on February 6 opened the case - gave sensitive material to the United States.

Beijing does not know for sure what Wang said to the Americans and what material he handed to them, if any. The government does not want to be embarrassed by saying something that the US could deny or gain an advantage by using Wang's materials. Beijing feels it has to publicly show more of its cards in a delicate internal matter that in the past would have remained secret.

This is only the first veil of the mystery. Wang's attempted flight - and probably the first problems for Bo - was apparently prompted by the death on November 15, under suspicious circumstances, of Neil Heywood, 41, a British business associate of Gu Kailai, Bo's wife, for over 10 years. Heywood also helped get Bo's son, Bo Guagua, a place to study in Britain at his elite alma mater, Harrow School.

The man died of a heart attack, according to a first version, and the body was immediately cremated. Cremation, for ultra-suspicious investigators such those in China, is tantamount to an admission of guilt by people close to Gu. If the death was really due to natural causes, why hastily proceed with cremation? That case prompted the beginning of an investigation on Gu for suspected murder. That investigation eventually led to Wang's attempted flight. Gu has been officially charged with plotting and murdering Heywood over a business dispute, according to a story published yesterday by official Xinhua agency.

Moreover, Heywood was not just a businessman like so many others. He had been working for the MI6, the British Foreign Intelligence Service, and he maintained working relationships with a private intelligence company, manned by many former MI6 agents. This fact, the unclear situation surrounding his death, and the attempted escape to the US consulate of a police chief with the rank of deputy minister, multiply suspicions in Beijing, where paranoia is the default position in any case.

The story reeks of betrayal to a foreign country and goes beyond simple matters of different policies or the internal settling of scores between top Chinese leaders. In fact, this case touches on some of the most sensitive issues in the Chinese system.

Many leaders have sent their children to study in America or the United Kingdom. Sons, wives, and relatives all have business relations or friendships with foreigners, relationships that sometimes could become suspicious in one way or another. It is impossible to isolate these families and totally stop secret communications or deals that could emerge, so the government could now consider that it is compelled to be more directly open with the Americans - in order to contain leaks from elsewhere.

This could lead to an evolution in the Chinese system that will bring about greater openness with the US, which is regarded in Beijing as "doing well" in this case. Washington refused to grant Wang political asylum, and it did not reveal to the press the contents Wang's statements or the documents he took to the consulate. Both things would have caused acute embarrassment for Beijing.

An even broader consideration derives from this case. In the past 15 years, all great challenges to the CCP leadership have come from the left, from the Falungong in 1999 to Bo Xilai today. This proves the party was too prudent with its reforms and didn't reform fast enough to pre-empty those challenges. Realization of this could now push the party to be bolder on political reforms.

In any case, Beijing does not like being forced into choices by outside elements - and moreover, this does not resolve the question of the death of Heywood. Why would Gu kill him? In order to silence him over money? This seems too little as a motive to embark on serious crime which would surely arouse Beijing's suspicions. Or was there something else?

All these questions remain unanswered and thus we could have more revelations in the coming weeks or months.  (2012-04-12 Asia Times)


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