By Jiang Xueqin, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jiang Xueqin is a China-born writer and educator. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chronicle of Higher Education and The Diplomat among other publications. The views expressed are his own.
China has announced the seven men who will rule the country for the next decade, and everyone is anxiously anticipating their actions. But perhaps the story of the man left out – Bo Xilai – offers a better diagnosis and prognosis of China.
In a system known for conformity and compromise, Bo proved himself creative and charismatic, first in the coastal boomtown of Dalian and then as party chief of Chongqing. Son of one of China’s Eight Immortals, Bo seemed destined for the pinnacle until his father Bo Yibo died. Seemingly exiled from Beijing in 2007, Bo decided to restore his political fortunes by re-inventing the mafia-infested industrial wasteland that is Chongqing. He ran the mafia out of town, and he had the people sing “The East is Red.” In so doing, Bo became a political rock star, and set the stage for a downfall worthy of Shakespeare.
On February 6, 2012, Wang Lijun, Bo’s top enforcer, walked into the American consulate in Chengdu, reportedly told stupefied American officials that he had evidence of corruption incriminating Bo, and then walked out into the arms of Chinese security officials who escorted him to Beijing. Just as China was about to embark on a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, the Chinese Internet and Western press became a maelstrom of coup d’état rumors, lewd innuendos, and hints of violent court politics.
The story embedded itself in the Western imagination when it became reported that the scandal’s catalyst was the murder of Briton Neil Heywood. Somehow, the story went, Wang stumbled upon evidence of the involvement of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, and when he confronted Bo with this evidence, Bo is alleged to have stripped Wang of his powers, and to have planned “three ways to kill him.” This implausible story became the official truth when a Chinese court, despite the lack of evidence against Gu, handed her a suspended death sentence for the murder of Heywood, a verdict that sealed Bo’s political fate.
On November 12, Britain’s Channel 4 presented a documentary that challenged this understanding of Bo’s downfall. The documentary hears from an “insider” who suggests that Heywood was never close to the Bo family, and was really an opportunist who used his Harrow accent and brief encounters with the Bo family to fleece British businessmen greedy for “guanxi.”
While murder and mistresses, sex and spies do grab headlines, we must remember that the scandal’s two protagonists were Bo and Wang. Together, the brilliant politician and the daring policeman made a formidable team, and having worked with Wang in Liaoning Province, Bo knew that Wang was the best – and perhaps only – man for the job in his crusade against Chongqing’s mafia. In the all-out war, Wang risked his life to make Chongqing Bo’s personal fiefdom, and in return Wang expected his success to be rewarded, his loyalty to be reciprocated, and he himself to be respected. But could Bo – a man notorious for his megalomania – respect anyone, and share the limelight?
Underneath every great partnership is an intensely explosive rivalry. Think of the mutual mistrust between Roman emperors and their generals in Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And think of one of history’s most productive partnerships – the one between George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.
In his sympathetic biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow describes the tumultuous relationship between the respected commander of the American revolutionary army and his talented aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton:
“Working in daily contact with a man burdened by multiple cares, Hamilton inevitably was exposed to Washington’s bad-tempered side. A stoic figure who strove to be perfectly composed in public, Washington needed to blow off steam in private, and the proud, sensitive young Hamilton grew weary of dealing with his boss’s varying moods.
“Like many talented subordinates, Hamilton nurtured a rich fantasy life and could easily have imagined himself in Washington’s place. He found a desk job, even such a prestigious one, too lowly and monotonous for his tastes and dreamed of battlefield glory, repeatedly requesting a field command. But he wielded such a skillful pen that Washington was reluctant to dispense with it and turned him down. In December 1780 he also scotched Hamilton’s chance of becoming adjutant general, which would have jumped him over several officers of superior rank and thereby created endless trouble.”
Three days before Wang walked into the American consulate in Chengdu, he penned a public letter condemning Bo as a “despot who makes arbitrary decisions, hateful and ruthless…He treats people like chewing gum: after a little chew, he just throws you away…I was willing to risk my life on his behalf, and he treated me worse than he’d treat a dog.”
We could easily imagine Hamilton writing this sort of letter after his experiences as Washington’s aide-de-camp – he certainly must have thought like this. But he did not. Instead, Hamilton found a pretext to resign amicably, and having married into one of New York’s richest families, this self-made man soon found success as a lawyer. Over time, as the two men matured, their rift healed, and when Washington became president, Hamilton became his treasury secretary.
But, whereas American culture respects the sanctity of the individual, Chinese culture only acknowledges the power of factions, and in the Chinese political system Wang could only be Bo’s creature for life.
Now that Bo Xilai has left the political stage it seems that the seven men still on stage can now work together to rule China. But, as Bo Xilai’s downfall reveals to us, behind the veneer of consensus and co-operation lurks a vicious and violent rivalry just waiting to tear everything apart.