Chinese Communist "princeling" Bo Xilai, expected by many to take a key leadership position in the leadership transition of 2012, was expelled from the Communist Party in September after a career that saw him as Mayor of Dalian City, Minister of Commerce and Party Chief of the Chongqing municipality. His wife Gu Kailai received a suspended death sentence in August 2012 for murdering British business partner Neil Heywood.
Analysis: flamboyant Chinese princeling faces final indignity
The writing was perhaps already on the wall for Bo Xilai, the controversial former top official of China’s southwestern city of Chongqing, when he appeared at last year’s parliamentary meeting, alternately chastened and combative.
In earlier annual sessions of parliament, Bo had swept in, all smiles and lanky grace, preceded by a wave of TV cameras and popping flashbulbs. This time he was uncharacteristically restrained.
Bo rolled his eyes at repeated questions from foreign reporters about a scandal involving then-vice mayor Wang Lijun, and the normally effusive state media and parliament delegates kept their distance.
Wang, who doubled as the city’s police chief before his downfall, went to ground in the US Consulate in nearby Chengdu in February last year until he was coaxed out and placed under investigation.
“I certainly never expected this,” Bo said of Wang’s flight. “I felt that it happened extremely suddenly.”
News of his own change of fortune came just as suddenly.
A few days after his news conference in March last year, a terse report from the official Xinhua news agency announced that Beijing had sacked Bo from his post, all but snuffing out his chances of rising to the top echelons of the Communist Party.
Now the end appears imminent for Bo, 64, whose long-awaited trial on charges of corruption, accepting bribes and abuse of power opened on Thursday, when he is certain to be found guilty by the Communist Party-controlled court.
Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, and Wang were jailed last year over China’s biggest political scandal in years, which stems from the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in November 2011, a crime for which Gu was convicted.
After first helping Gu evade suspicion of poisoning Heywood, Wang hushed up evidence of the murder, according to the official account of Wang’s trial. In late January last year, Wang confronted Bo with the allegation that Gu was suspected of killing Heywood. But Wang was “angrily rebuked and had his ears boxed”.
After Bo was sacked, he disappeared from public view and has not had a chance to respond publicly to the accusations against him.
Sources said in February that Bo was refusing to co-operate with the government investigation, had staged hunger strikes and had refused to shave to protest against what he saw as his unfair treatment.
But he later began co-operating with authorities, the sources said last month.
As the outspoken Chongqing party chief, Bo had mounted a daring bid for the nation’s top political body, the party’s Politburo Standing Committee.
He captured national attention with a crackdown on organised crime and corrupt police officers in Chongqing, China’s teeming wartime capital, and brought about stronger economic growth. But he also alienated political peers.
The anti-mafia campaign netted thousands of people and tapped into popular anger over the corruption and collusion that has accompanied China’s economic boom.
“Fighting organised crime is for the sake of letting the people enjoy peace and creating a clean social environment in Chongqing,” Bo said at his parliamentary news briefing, defending his record.
“We are sure of ourselves and free of regrets.”
Bo, a former China commerce minister and mayor of the northeastern port city of Dalian where he wooed foreign investors, once had a flair for the dramatic.
His directness and independent streak impressed foreigners but annoyed peers, who prefer to rule through backdoor consensus and often stilted slogans.
Analysts have noted that no one in the top leadership had publicly praised Bo or the crackdown on organised crime.
Then-Premier Wen Jiabao told his annual news conference last year that Chongqing’s leadership should reflect on the Wang Lijun incident, and also obliquely criticised Bo’s drive to revive songs and culture from the heyday of Mao’s Communist revolution.
Bo is a son of late vice-premier Bo Yibo, making the younger Bo a “princeling” - a child of an incumbent, retired or late national leader.
His wife was a lawyer and their son, Bo Guagua, was educated at an expensive, elite British private school and then Oxford University. The younger Bo’s Facebook photos from parties caused their own Internet stir in China.
While wooing investors, Bo also envisioned low-cost housing for rural poor and migrant labourers, designed to appeal to then-President Hu Jintao’s goal of creating a “harmonious society”.
He called his vision “Peaceful Chongqing.” It included text messages with Maoist slogans, singing old-style revolutionary songs by civil servants, who also had to adopt poor families and staff petition offices where citizens can complain.
But Bo had difficulty shaking off the suspicion of some critics, both inside and outside the country, that he was more concerned with his own rise than that of China.
Leading characters in the Bo Xilai scandal:
Bo Xilai: Until his ouster, Bo was the Communist Party chief of the mega-city of Chongqing and one of the country’s most prominent political figures. The telegenic, media-savvy politician rode to nationwide fame by waging an anti-mafia crackdown and organizing mass sing-alongs of Communist Party songs. But his publicity-seeking ways and his revival of Mao Zedong-era radical campaigns alarmed many in the political elite. The son of one of the Communist state’s founding fathers, Bo was already in the party’s 25-member Politburo and before the scandal was seen as a contender for an even higher post. Rumors had also swirled about the Bo family’s wealth and the shenanigans of his son. Bo is standing trial for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power.
Gu Kailai: Bo’s wife has confessed to killing British businessman Neil Heywood after having a dispute over money and worrying that he had threatened her son’s safety, according to state media. She is said to have risen out of a trying childhood during nationwide upheaval to become a prominent lawyer and high-flying politician’s wife. She was skilled at turning on the charm when the going was smooth, yet quick to turn hostile when crossed. Like Bo, she is the offspring of a prominent Chinese revolutionary veteran. A Chinese court gave Gu a suspended death sentence in August last year which will likely be commuted to a life term.
Bo Guagua: Their 25-year-old son, who was educated at top universities in England and the United States, including Harvard. Guagua, who has appeared shirtless at parties in photos posted on the Internet, has said he attended social events as an Oxford University undergraduate to broaden his perspective. He denies accusations he received preferential treatment in admissions, that he was a poor student or that he drove a pricey sports car. He is not believed to have returned to China since the scandal broke and he is currently studying law at Columbia University. He says he has been denied access to his parents since their detention 18 months ago.
Wang Lijun: Once Bo’s right-hand man and Chongqing’s police chief, Wang was sidelined by Bo in February last year after Wang confronted him with news that Bo’s wife was suspected of killing a British businessman. Fearing for his life, Wang fled to the U.S. Consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu where Chinese authorities say he applied for asylum. Chinese security sealed the area around the consulate as Wang negotiated with officials for safe passage to Beijing accompanied by State Security officials. While in the consulate, Wang is believed to have alleged that Gu was behind Heywood’s death, prompting the British government to ask China to launch a new investigation. In a surprising twist, people who attended Wang’s trial say the court heard evidence that Gu had informed Wang of her intentions and that for a time, he too participated in planning the murder. Wang was sentenced to 15 years for corruption and covering up the Heywood murder.
Neil Heywood: A British business consultant and Bo family friend, his body was found in a secluded Chongqing hilltop retreat in November 2011. Chinese authorities originally blamed his death on excessive drinking or a heart attack and his body was cremated without an autopsy. Subsequently, an official Chinese statement said he had a longtime business relationship with Gu and her son, Guagua, but that it had deteriorated over financial disputes. Bo reportedly sought to block a police investigation after Wang came to him with his suspicions.