by Chris Buckley and Benjamin Kang Lim
Beijing: “We can’t keep a lid on this,” China’s disgraced leader Bo Xilai was reportedly told by his police chief when the murder scandal now engulfing Bo’s family first began to unravel.
With a once-in-a-decade leadership handover months away, the Communist Party’s elite must be thinking the same thing as they confront the first very public turmoil at the centre of power in more than 20 years.
Revelations about the former Chongqing party chief issued by the government on Tuesday, and above all that his wife Gu Kailai is suspected of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood, have upset China’s carefully staged power succession, turning it into a drama that could still claim victims.
“We’re all watching a big drama performed by the top level of the party,” said Dai Qing, an investigative writer in Beijing and the adoptive daughter of a People’s Liberation Army marshal. “Act one is over, and we’re waiting to see what happens next.”
President Hu Jintao and other leaders now face a quandary — how to prevent rifts among the leaders even as they manoeuvre for possible gain from Bo’s dismissal from the Party’s Central Committee and its Politburo.
That, and especially how it was handled, has exposed divisions within the ruling elite.
Former officials and other sources close to the leadership said these were often ideological, and overlapped with open feuding between left-wing and liberal groups.
Left-wing supporters of the charismatic Bo defended him as the instigator of a much-needed new and improved path for China. But those pushing for Bo’s fall were alarmed by his sweeping crackdown on organised crime, which brought allegations of widespread abuse of power, and by his nostalgia for the songs and culture of Mao Zedong’s era.
The differences among the elite carry risks of destabilising the government just as the Party grapples with mounting pressures on the world’s second biggest economy and waning public confidence.
Signalling the concern that the upheaval could spread, an editorial in the People’s Daily admonished officials to close ranks before a congress late this year that will bring in a new elite to replace Hu and his team.
Bo was an abrasive politician whose anti-crime campaign and populist vows made other leaders appear as if they were failing to meet the public’s basic needs.
Dai said that while leaders will remain united for now, most of them were relieved by his ouster. But she said broader worries will fester about whether leaders can keep a tight ship while tackling needed economic and political reforms.
“There’ll be a smooth 18th Party Congress without Bo Xilai. The central leadership has achieved unity for that,” she said.
“But then we have to see act two,” she added. “There are certainly still rifts, because each of them (leaders) has his own interests and interest groups to take care of.”
The turmoil in the secretive Chinese leadership is the most dramatic since 1989 in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown on democracy protests in Beijing.
A challenge for propaganda machine
Explaining the gulf between Bo’s campaign for clean-living socialist virtues, praised by some central leaders and admired by many ordinary citizens, and the allegations about his family’s private conduct will be a challenge for China’s propaganda machine.
It will be all the more difficult because Bo is a “princeling”, the party’s equivalent of royal blood because his father, Bo Yibo, served alongside Mao Zedong before and after the revolution.
Before the government’s announcement, officials across the country were briefed about the allegations in a series of internal meetings that aired more detailed and damning allegations, said sources told about the briefings. The sources declined to be named, citing communist party rules.
The allegations focus on events leading from Heywood’s death to a confrontation between Bo and his then public security chief Wang Lijun in late January. That prompted Bo to strip Wang of his duties and led Wang to flee to the US consulate in Chengdu, a city about 300 kms (190 miles) from Chongqing.
Even before their clash, Wang’s relationship with his long-time patron, Bo, had soured over months into deep distrust, said one source who knows both men.
According to accounts previously reported by Reuters, Wang feared that Bo, keen to preserve his chances for a spot in the next central leadership, would abandon him after central authorities began probing Wang’s past, possibly with the aim of uncovering information about Bo.
Wang, apparently seeking to protect himself, gathered information about Bo and Gu, said a separate source. He ordered his men to bug the phones of Chongqing officials and secretly recorded his face-to-face conversations with his boss.
He tried to use the evidence to pressure Bo to support him, but Bo refused. About a week before his flight to Chengdu, Wang confronted Bo with his suspicions about the death of Heywood, a business consultant who was instrumental in Bo’s son attending Harrow, an exclusive private school in England.
“Wang told Bo that four officers refused to sign off on a report about the death, because they suspected it was poisoning,” said a source who knows Bo and his family, citing accounts from officials about the case.
“We can’t keep a lid on this,” Wang told Bo, according the source, citing the officials’ accounts.
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