@LONDON: Scandal involving Bo Xilai too sensitive to discuss

September 20, 2012

KOICHIRO ISHIDA/ Shenyang Bureau Correspondent

I traveled to Britain in June and July to collect information for a series of articles on the power structure of the Chinese Communist Party, before the start of the London Olympics.

Bo Guagua, the 24-year-old son of Bo Xilai, 63, who was ousted as Communist Party chief of Chongqing city, came to this country in the late 1990s, and spent time here from when he was junior high school to university age.

Gu Kailai, the 53-year-old wife of Bo Xilai, confessed to killing 41-year-old British businessman Neil Heywood and received a suspended death sentence in a Chinese court on Aug. 20. Heywood was born in London.

In China, everyone from government officials to company executives wouldn’t say much about the “sensitive issue” involving the former high-ranking party official.

I had expected I could unearth new information about the scandal here in Britain--from the suspected massive money laundering and the privileged life of the scion, to the motives behind Heywood's murder.

But things didn’t work out so easily.

Referring to the corporate and property registration of firms established by Heywood and Gu, documents on company finances and information on schools the son attended, I visited a former secretary, a former accountant, family members of the late British man, neighbors, Guagua’s former classmates, Chinese restaurants and a Chinese community.

At the time, Bo Xilai had already fallen from power, Gu Kailai had been arrested, and Bo Guagua, who moved to the United States two years ago, was not in Britain.

But among people with connections with the Bo family, Chinese in Britain who had met members of the Bo family showed the same reaction as I had found in China.

They said they wouldn’t comment because the issue was too sensitive.

The Hong Kong-born owner of an expensive restaurant in London, where Guagua had been a regular customer, boasted of his celebrity customers. But the owner lowered his eyes and became silent as soon as I mentioned Guagua’s name.

A student from Hong Kong, who was a junior fellow along with Guagua at the University of Oxford, turned down my request for an interview, saying over the phone that the subject was too sensitive.

A person from mainland China who had shared a table with Guagua at a party rejected an interview even under conditions of anonymity and later never answered my phone calls.

Even a Taiwanese teacher who had taught the children of Communist Party executives turned down an interview request that would be held outside the workplace, saying the teacher did not want to be involved because of a planned visit to mainland China.

A colleague in London told me that the people’s trust in the media plunged after last year’s revelation of a phone hacking scandal involving a Sunday tabloid owned by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. The colleague said people have also increasingly been cautious about talking to reporters, because the practice of having paid informants in government by popular newspapers came to light.

To be sure, the Britons who rejected requests for interviews--Heywood’s family members, neighbors, accountant and secretary--apparently did not want their lives to be disrupted further as they already had been visited by European reporters.

Already holding a distrust of the media, those people seemed to be further disgusted by the news-gathering efforts of European reporters who were intrigued by the suspected murder of a Briton by the wife of a Chinese Communist Party executive.

I understood their reasons for not wanting to meet with a Japanese reporter.

On the other hand, Chinese living here refused interviews for different reasons.

A friend of mine from Hong Kong told me an example for my better understanding of what circumstances their compatriots are living under.

In the spring, my friend attended a debate in London that influential British politicians were participating in. In a question-and-answer session after a keynote speech, my friend asked about Beijing’s stance on restrictions against freedom of speech in Hong Kong. After the meeting, a man in a suit came up to my friend and asked the reason for such a question. Becoming suspicious, my friend asked the man who he was. He told my friend he was an official at the Chinese Embassy in Britain.

Shao Jiang, 45, was one of the student leaders in the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, and has been pursuing the democratization of China here in Britain. He told me he was annoyed by a number of prank calls at night shortly before the torch relay in London for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He also said someone continuously rang the doorbell of his home before June 4, the anniversary of the incident.

“I am often followed by someone,” he said. “You are asking me who did that? I think they are people related to the Chinese Communist Party. I have no evidence, though.”

According to a Hong Kong media correspondent in Britain, many Chinese living here entered illegally and try to avoid being involved in politics or making political statements. These immigrants try to establish a stable livelihood by steering clear of conflict with Britons. This can be described as wisdom for surviving in a foreign country.

Chinese here keep quiet certainly out of fear of authorities’ crackdown on illegal entry and British nationalists’ acts for exclusion. But many of them have their family members and relatives in China. I think they were also concerned that their comments could anger Beijing, putting their family in harm’s way.

Wu Lunan, 60, a Hong Kong native who has been trusted by Chinese in Britain for many years for his charity activities, courageously agreed to be interviewed and even allowed his name to be used. He aimed his criticism not at the Chinese government but the British government.

Wu said the British government is putting its first priority on business and only superficially criticized China on human rights issue.

Recalling that a Chinese researcher in Japan critical of Beijing had once asked me to meet at an out-of-the-way location, I thought of Wu’s remark.

***

Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.

KOICHIRO ISHIDA/ Shenyang Bureau Correspondent
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  • PROFILE/ Koichiro Ishida, correspondent at the Shenyang Bureau of The Asahi Shimbun: Ishida, 39, joined the newspaper in 1997. He served at the Kanazawa and Kobe bureaus and the City News Section in Osaka and Tokyo, and studied at the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He has been at his current post since February.
  • Shao Jiang has been pursuing the democratization of China here in Britain, where he moved from China after the Tiananmen Square incident. (Koichiro Ishida)
  • Wu Lunan calls for the release of political prisoners in front of the Chinese Embassy in Britain. (Koichiro Ishida)
  • A building of the University of Oxford, where Bo Guagua attended, is opened to tourists after many students left for summer vacation. (Koichiro Ishida)
  • A house in London where the Neil Heywood family lived until 2000 (Koichiro Ishida)
  • A view of a street in the southern port town of Poole, where a firm run by Gu Kailai existed (Koichiro Ishida)
  • Harrow School in London, a prestigious boarding school Bo Guagua once attended (Koichiro Ishida)

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