Editor's note: This is the first of a series on Bo Xilai. This series will appear on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
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DALIAN, China--Outside of China’s corridors of power, the world is still trying to understand the full ramifications of the spectacular and sensational downfall of Bo Xilai, once an up-and-coming Chinese leader.
The sudden reversal of Bo’s fortunes that started around four months ago has been described as the nation’s biggest political drama since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. It could even affect the national leadership transition expected this autumn and the behavior of the new administration.
A close look at Bo’s rise to political eminence and the scandal that proved his undoing offers some insights into the power structure of the Communist Party of China, which rules 1.3 billion people under a red-colored banner.
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On Aug. 20, 1999, then Chinese President Jiang Zemin grimaced momentarily, his good mood spoiled, on the final day of his 10-day inspection tour in Dalian, an industrial hub on the Yellow Sea coast in Liaoning province.
The bespectacled Chinese leader had been treated like a king on the tour before he found himself in front of a white marble column nearly 20 meters high. Twisting dragons and auspicious clouds had been engraved on the traditional ornamental column, called “huabiao,” from the square base to the top.
Symbols of the enormous power of the emperors, these imposing marble pillars were erected by successive Chinese dynasties on both sides of approaches to imperial palaces and tombs.
Jiang, however, was not impressed.
“Why on Earth do they need such a high and large one?” Jiang said disapprovingly to his entourage.
Jiang’s visit to Dalian was meticulously prepared by Bo Xilai, who was then mayor of the city, or the No. 2 post. To supervise the president’s trip, Bo had to go over the head of the person who held the No. 1 post: Yu Xuexiang, secretary of the Communist Party’s municipal committee.
Bo was instrumental in realizing Jiang’s unusually lengthy visit to a local city for the country’s top leader. Bo’s father, the late Bo Yibo who had been vice premier, was largely responsible for Jiang’s ascent to power.
In preparing for Jiang’s visit to Dalian, Bo instructed his right-hand man, a senior official at the city’s Public Security Bureau, to import from Germany a state-of-the-art eavesdropping device. The highly directional microphone could pick up human voices within a 100-meter radius, even conversations made on the other side of glass.
Bo intended to use the instrument to listen to the president’s conversations in hotel rooms and cars during his stay. He wanted to ensure there would be no slipups in entertaining the nation’s leader.
In addition, Bo made arrangements for each of Jiang’s secretaries and drivers to receive a cash card that allowed withdrawals of up to 80,000 yuan (1 million yen) so that they could buy souvenirs.
When the presidential motorcade passed the municipal government building on the final day of Jiang’s visit, the president’s driver slowed down the vehicle near a portrait of Jiang on a large billboard normally used for corporate advertising.
Jiang looked surprised to see his huge portrait and turned back many times to see it. A close aide to Jiang later briefed a senior official of the municipal government on the president’s reaction to Bo’s attempt to please him.
Jiang’s surprise was partly due to the fact that the Community Party in 1980 banned productions of current leaders’ portraits, based on the bitter lessons from the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution, which resulted from the cult of personality surrounding Mao Tse-tung.
Bo’s flattery strategy worked well with Jiang, who was known for his fondness of display. The portrait also erased Jiang’s displeasure with the marble pillar, according to a former official at the municipal government. “I’ve heard that he was gazing at his portrait with his face beaming with smiles.”
The following month, the Communist Party leadership announced that Bo had replaced Yu, leaving Yu with only the title of chairman of the Standing Committee of the Dalian People’s Congress, a post he had been holding concurrently. It was glaringly obvious that Yu had been demoted to promote Bo.
Another official at the municipal government who was involved in designing the huabiao that displeased Jiang recalls that Bo wanted the column to be the tallest in China because he would someday become “tianzi" (son of heaven), or the emperor.
“You guys should start genuflecting (before the column) now,” Bo was quoted as saying.
BO'S DOWNFALL JUST BEFORE REACHING THE PINNACLE OF POWER
On a mid-June afternoon, a chilly breeze blew through Xinghai Square on the Dalian coast.
Beside the huabiao, which stands at the center of the square, a long bronze pathway made up of footprints of 1,000 prominent people stretches toward the sea.
It is a Dalian Centenary Sculpture to commemorate the city’s 100th anniversary of being inaugurated as a municipality, with inscriptions written in Chinese, English and Japanese.
One of the 1,000 pairs of footprints was sparkling with gold, its black coating having peeled away.
“This is Bo Xilai,” said a tour guide carrying a small flag, pointing to the golden footprints. The tourists pointed their cameras at the large footprints, fitting for a man with a 186-cm frame.
After the group left, other visitors came to see Bo’s footprints. One of them stroked the footprints. Another visitor stomped on them.
Bo, who became Dalian mayor at the age of 43 in 1993, was called a “gongzuokuang” (workaholic).
Under the slogan of turning Dalian into a northern Hong Kong, Bo carried out a series of infrastructure projects. During his eight years as mayor and party secretary in the city, Bo built housing for 1 million people and promoted efforts to purify polluted rivers.
But his high-handed, strong-arm approach to getting things done antagonized many people. Some residents who refused to move out for urban development projects suffered physical violence or were detained at the hands of the authorities and contractors.
The municipal government’s building was originally built as the administrative office of Kwantung Leased Territory in 1937, when the area was under Japanese rule.
On the third floor of the four-story building was Bo’s office, which was called “buyecheng” (nightless quarters). The office had a floor space exceeding 200 square meters and was equipped with a shower and a bed.
It was not uncommon for Bo, a demanding and unforgiving boss, to summon underlings to meetings in the wee hours of the night. Bo showed no mercy to officials who failed to show up for such meetings or answer their cellphones.
Bo is one of the so-called princelings, offspring of China’s first revolutionary leaders.
Driven by ambitions of becoming tianzi, Bo rapidly climbed the ladder of power by using his father’s influence and his ability to act aggressively and ruthlessly when necessary. But he abruptly fell from the ladder just before reaching the top.
Bo is currently confined in a government facility in northern China for interrogation, according to Communist Party officials with access to the party’s internal report on the investigation.
Bo has reportedly continued to deny any knowledge of or involvement in the suspected murder of a British consultant or the illegal accumulation of wealth of which his wife, Gu Kailai, is accused.
A party official admits that the investigation has bogged down. Looking into the allegations is a team of investigation experts led by the party’s anti-corruption body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
The elite investigation agency has an impressive track record of extracting confessions from corrupt party executives. But even the powerful party leadership needs to tread cautiously in pursuing the case against Bo, who has an exceptional family pedigree and a powerful network of political allies.
Once a month, the 25 members of the party’s Central Politburo gather for a meeting in Zhongnanhai, an area in central Beijing adjacent to the Forbidden City. After discussing the items on the agenda, Hu Jintao, the president and party secretary-general who presides over these meetings, usually says, “Does anybody want to speak?”
Bo almost always raised his hand, according to an informed party source.
With China gearing up for the crucial national party congress this autumn, the nation’s leaders in Beijing have started stressing that their current priority is on ensuring unity within the party.
That’s why the party has decided to characterize the Bo incident as a matter concerning party rules and the law--not a political event, according to a senior executive of a party organ.
Zhou Yongkang, a senior party leader serving as the ninth-ranked member of the Politburo Standing Committee, is in charge of the nation’s security apparatus and is believed to have close ties with Bo. Some foreign media have reported that Zhou has been investigated in connection with the Bo scandal.
But the investigation team decided that Zhou had nothing to do with the case after questioning his secretaries and aides.
Still, there is no denying that the downfall of the young leader who was expected to join the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo has upset the power balance within the party.
The new Chongqing municipal party committee, which was inaugurated on June 22, has decided to remove the standing committee membership of a close Bo aide he had brought in from the Ministry of Commerce.
Before long, party leaders will gather in a smoke-filled room for the annual unofficial summer meeting in the Beidaihe district of Hebei province. They will discuss, behind closed-door, deals concerning top party posts.
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