For Bo Xilai’s siblings, the dramatic trial they witnessed in the courtroom over the past week was probably a nightmarish déjà vu.
Thirty-six years ago, their father, Bo Yibo, who was China’s vice premier, was dragged before “struggle sessions” in front of thousands of people at stadiums in Beijing and paraded around with a big iron plaque around his neck as “a traitor and corrupt official.” Their mother, Hu Ming, died in mysterious circumstances while on a train being escorted by her handlers back to Beijing to expose her husband’s crimes.
Fast-forward to the present. Bo’s son Bo Xilai, the former Politburo member and party chief of Chongqing, has been charged with corruption and misusing his authority at a just concluded trial. Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence last August for murdering a British businessman and forced to testify against her husband.
In the 1960s, the father, who helped found Communist China with Mao, remained defiant and demanded to speak in his own defense at public denunciation meetings, but his handlers silenced him with force. His defiance eventually earned him 12 years in jail.
Bo Xilai adopted a similar attitude at his own trial. During the trial, Bo Xilai launched a vigorous defense, which sometimes bordered on farce—he denied all the charges, recanted the confessions he had made earlier, and fiercely attacked his former friends, ex-aide, and business allies. In response to the testimonies of his wife, he accused her of being a drug user and mentally unstable person who had an affair with Bo’s former police chief.
When part of the court transcript was transmitted to the public via the Chinese version of Twitter, Bo’s supporters applauded his eloquence, while the government media condemned him as a cunning scoundrel who refused to fess up to his crimes.
As the court is mulling over the evidence, Bo is well aware that a guilty verdict will be awaiting him, and he is likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Upon close examination, further eerie similarities between the career and life of Bo’s father and himself emerge.
As a young man, Bo Yibo, born in 1908, was an underground communist organizer. In 1931 he was arrested and sentenced to eight years by the then-Nationalist government under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Subsequently, with the approval of the senior Communist Party leadership, Bo Yibo gained his release by falsely confessing his crimes and publishing an anti-communist declaration in a local newspaper. When the communists claimed victory in 1949, Bo served as China’s first finance minister and vice premier.
Bo Yibo’s political career came to an abrupt end during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao mobilized the masses to consolidate his power within the party. Bo was an easy target because of his abrasive personality and his closeness to Mao, and soon Bo’s opponents within the party dug out a newspaper that featured the “anti-communist” declaration that he had signed. They condemned Bo as a traitor, and Mao acquiesced to the charges, even though he was well aware of Bo’s true situation. As a consequence, Bo Yibo found himself a prisoner of the communist state he had fought to establish.
To justify Bo Yibo’s jail sentence, the government launched a nationwide propaganda campaign to “expose his corrupt and decadent bourgeois lifestyle.” Corruption charges against Bo Yibo included watching foreign movies and owning 14 winter coats for a family of eight. The charges seem trivial, even laughable by today’s standards. But they were enough to keep Bo Yibo in prison for 12 years.
Two years after Mao’s death in 1976, Bo Yibo’s conviction was officially overturned, and he was reinstated as the vice premier and joined the Politburo. Despite the harsh treatment he received, Bo Yibo remained loyal to Mao’s communist ideology. When students marched in Tiananmen Square in 1989, demanding democratic reforms, Bo Yibo sided with hardliners to suppress the democratic movement with force and ousted the reform-minded General Party Secretary Hu Yaobang and Premier Zhao Ziyang. The latter remained under house arrest until his death in 2005.
Ironically, more than three decades later, his son Bo Xilai was brought down by senior leaders who claimed to be the protégés and supporters of Hu Yaobang and Premier Zhao Ziyang in a fresh round of political power struggles.
The 65-year-old Bo Xilai grew up in a privileged political family. He attended an elite school with many of China’s future important political and business leaders. During the Cultural Revolution, when his father was purged, Bo Xilai and his 2 brothers were incarcerated for almost 5 years at what was later known as Camp 789, a reeducation camp where more than 60 children of ousted party leaders were imprisoned.
Following his father’s retirement in the 1990s, Bo Xilai was designated as heir to the family’s political fortune and gradually moved his way up from a county chief to the mayor of China’s northeastern city of Dalian, China’s minister of commerce, a Politburo member, and the party chief of Chongqing. Ironically, he was criticized by his opponents for initiating radical Maoist policies and persecuted his opponents with the same ruthless tactics that Mao had applied to Bo’s father. He adopted a populist stance that rejected democratic reforms. In the end, his egotistical personality and his unabashed ambition to join the highest ranks did him in. When his police chief escaped to the American Consulate and details of his wife’s involvement in Neil Heywood’s murder surfaced, his opponents finally had what they needed to destroy him.
Coincidentally, his opponents justified his ouster by imposing similar charges that his father had faced during the Cultural Revolution—corruption and abuse of power. The difference is that he has been charged with taking more than US$3 million in bribes and embezzling US$1 million.
Personally, both the father and son divorced the wives who had supported them when they were at the low points of their lives in favor of younger and more attractive women as their careers turned the corner. Sadly, both second wives were fatally compromised by their husbands.
While many may attribute the above to pure coincidence, one cannot ignore the fact that Bo Xilai and his father are the products of a feudalistic system, under which brutal power struggles hang like a Damocles sword. Their downfalls are unavoidable.
In China, selections of officials are made by a few party strongmen and elders in a back room. As a consequence, the leadership transition is fraught with conspiracies and fierce factional infighting. The political elite still relies for advancement on family or personal connections, character assassination, persecution, and, as we have seen, even murder. Bo’s misfortune befell him when, driven by vaulting ambition, he conspired with his friends and allies at the top to seize power, only for his opponents to apply a similar conspiratorial method to bring him down.
Unlike his father who was able to revive his political career and outlive most of his opponents after Mao’s death, Bo might face a different scenario. A political comeback has never been more remote.