Tiptoeing around a powderkeg
Extraordinary international aspects of the Bo Xilai case have started to play out, with revelations emerging from Washington and London about the murky events that led to the former Chongqing party chief's downfall.
Although questions about the involvement of the US and British governments in one of the biggest political scandals on the mainland in decades have been raised, Washington and London have so far kept their distance from the political drama.
But things seem to have changed since Bo was effectively ousted from the country's top echelon of power early last week, with media reports in the United States and Britain shedding rare light on two separate but related events that led to the demise of Bo, a rising political star.
Reports and statements yesterday offered details about how Washington handled the asylum request by former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, previously Bo's top aide, in early February, and how London responded to the mysterious death of British businessman Neil Heywood in Chongqing last year.
They come as pressure mounts for official explanations in the US and Britain, but analysts said they also confirmed that both governments were maintaining their distance from the drama to avoid adversely affecting their ties with China.
Meanwhile Xinhua, in an English-language commentary issued late on Tuesday and apparently aimed at overseas readers, stressed Beijing's commitment to 'thoroughly' investigate the scandal, which 'has created an adverse influence both at home and abroad'. It ran another Chinese commentary yesterday stressing it is strictly a criminal case rather than a 'political fight', in an obvious effort to stifle intense online discussion on factional politics at the top level of the party.
Hong Kong-based analyst Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political scientist at City University, said: 'Basically the two governments don't want to alienate China or be seen as exploiting the matter.'
Both the US and Britain were also concerned about being seen as meddling in China's domestic politics, which could fuel the rise of ultra-nationalist sentiment, he said.
A Beijing-based international relations expert, who declined to be named, said: 'Both Washington and London have apparently restrained themselves from demonstrating their eagerness to take advantage of the series of scandals and that fact alone says a lot about their shrewd tactics in dealing with Beijing.'
A Chinese source close to the government said the leadership has yet to wrap up an assessment of how much the US may have benefited from documents Wang took into the US consulate in Chengdu on February 6. Although a report by The New York Times said Wang did not leave the documents behind when he left the consulate 36 hours later, it is believed they contained classified information about mainland politics, including revelations about Bo, and his wife's involvement in the alleged murder of Heywood in November.
'The harm has been done and the truth is we don't know how much the US knows,' the source said. 'A prevailing concern at the moment is that our leverage in future dealings with the Americans may be undercut because of this uncertainty.'
Britain toughened its stance and pressed China for a thorough probe into Heywood's death shortly before British Prime Minister David Cameron met visiting Chinese propaganda tsar Li Changchun yesterday. In a lengthy statement issued shortly before the meeting, British Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed that senior diplomats had been aware of the suspicious circumstances surrounding Heywood's death. But it said junior foreign minister Jeremy Browne did not raise those suspicions during a meeting with Bo in Chongqing on November 16, two days after Heywood's death.
'Ministers are not routinely told of the death of British nationals or other consular cases, as they are so numerous,' Hague said, dismissing claims Britain did not raise the case because of concerns about its possible adverse impact on commercial ties. 'However, we need to make sure that they are told in relevant cases, and we will review our procedures.'