The official Xinhua news agency announced last Friday that Gu Kailai, the wife of purged Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo member, Bo Xilai, has been indicted for the murder of their British business partner Neil Heywood.
The formal charging of Gu indicates that the CCP leadership is seeking to end the damaging factional rifts in the regime that were exposed by the allegations against Bo and his wife ahead of the party congress later this year. The congress is particularly important as a new generation of leaders is due to be installed.
Gu and the family secretary Zhang Xiaojun have been charged over the alleged poisoning of Heywood last November, whose death was initially declared by police to have been caused by excessive alcohol consumption. The initial cover up apparently failed. Bo’s police chief, Wang Lijun, sought asylum in the US consulate in Chengdu in February, claiming to have evidence of Bo’s corruption, including his involvement in the killing of Heywood.
The incident was seized upon by President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and their Communist Youth League faction to purge Bo in March, ending his quest for a seat in the powerful Politburo Standing Committee at this year’s congress.
Xinhua claimed that Gu murdered Heywood after she fell out with him over “economic interests” and regarded him as a physical threat to her and her son. “The facts of the two defendants’ crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial. Therefore, the two defendants should be charged with intentional homicide,” the news agency declared.
No details were provided about the “economic interests” at stake. But media reports over the past months pointed to Heywood’s close connection with Bo’s family since the 1990s. Heywood helped attract foreign investors to the various fiefdoms over which Bo ruled and also assisted with the transfer of huge sums from Bo’s fortune overseas. Heywood himself was a dubious figure who held the Beijing dealerships for Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce. Hakluyt & Company, a consultancy firm co-founded by a former British MI6 officer, also hired him.
The criminal case against Gu is aimed at covering up the political issues that led to Bo’s removal as party chief of the Chongqing municipality, allegedly for violating party discipline by using his position to cover up for his wife’s crimes. Significantly Bo was not mentioned in the Xinhua statement, indicating a possible concession to the party faction with which he is aligned.
Willy Lam, a veteran Hong Kong-based correspondent, told the BBC’s Chinese service that the CCP leadership had decided to deal with Bo as an “individual case”, rather than one involving “an anti-party clique” or “a major conspiracy”. Any decision to attack Bo’s factional allies would have cut across efforts to prepare a “united” congress. Lam said he expect Bo to be expelled from the CCP at the congress.
Zhang Lifan, a political affairs analyst formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the South China Morning Post that the prosecution of Gu “suggests the leadership is eager to put an end to the political scandal as soon as possible in an effort to create a favourable and harmonious atmosphere for the 18th party congress.” Zhang said that the factional struggles associated with Bo’s removal in March had “exposed a leadership split and threatens to lay bare corruption in the party’s highest ranks.”
The 18th party congress will usher in a transfer of power from President Hu and Premier Wen to the so-called “fifth” generation of leadership headed by Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang. The annual informal meeting of party leaders, including senior retired CCP figures, currently taking place at the Beidaihe seaside resort, is likely to settle the final composition of the new leadership.
Just days before the Xinhua announcement, President Hu held a major meeting with provincial leaders and issued a call for “unity” that has been widely interpreted as “setting the tone” for the congress. Hu stressed the “unprecedented challenge” facing the party and repeatedly emphasized the need to stick with Deng Xiaoping’s economic “reform and open up”—that is, to extend the pro-market policies that have transformed China into a huge cheap labour platform for foreign investors.
In February, a major World Bank report called for extensive new pro-market economic changes. Hu and Wen responded by announcing policies aimed at opening up the Chinese economy to international investors, especially in strategic sectors such as energy, banking and basic industries, that are still dominated by massive state-owned conglomerates and have been closed off to foreign companies. Hu and Wen also called for growth to be boosted through the more intensive exploitation of labour, including by extending the retirement age.
Behind the inner party turmoil lies the deepening crisis of global capitalism. Hu and Wen emphasised that because of the decline of markets in the US and Europe, China could no longer rely on economic expansion driven by cheap state credit and exports to the West.
Bo’s removal ensures that his supporters, especially those calling for a stronger role for the state in the economy and for the protection of state-owned corporations, will have a lesser role in the new leadership. Bo’s so-called “Chongqing model” was promoted by various neo-Maoist academics as an alternative to the “reform and open up” policy advocated by the present CCP leadership.
Another major motive for ending public discussion of Bo is because the corruption allegations are a devastating indictment of the entire CCP regime. While Bo was known for his populist rhetoric directed against corruption and organised crime, he and his family amassed huge fortunes. A continued focus on Bo would expose the way in which every faction within the top party leadership have grown wealthy at the expense of the working class and rural masses.
Underlying Hu’s appeal for the unity of the CCP bureaucracy is the fear in the Chinese ruling elite that the slowing economy and deteriorating living standards are fuelling opposition and resistance from workers and the rural poor. In such conditions, a split in the CCP leadership could open the door for a mass political movement that threatens the regime as a whole.
The author also recommends:
Chinese leadership turmoil continues
[26 May 2012]
The downfall of Bo Xilai in China
[30 April 2012]