The ultimate Chinese opera

The trial of politician Bo Xilai’s wife for murdering a British businessman has ended with only one winner: The Party.

File photo shows China''s former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo and his wife standing at a mourning held for his father in Beijing
Gu Kaili, wife of politican Bo Xilai, was found guilty of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood [Reuters]

The whole spectacular drama adds a new dimension to what we know as Beijing opera. How do you solve a massive political scandal at the highest spheres of the Chinese Communist Party while at the same time saving the Party?

Some lead characters had to be fed to the masses, while others had to be propped up as heroes/servers of the people until 2022. And all this while the Party still had not set the date – sometime next October – for its 10-yearly lavish leadership liturgy, when the next generation of Chinese leaders is enthroned as the guiding lights of the next superpower.

And it’s hardly the last act. Imagine the whole plot choreographed in parallel sequences by Francis Ford Coppola – Godfather-style.    

Take this long courtroom drama sequence at the Hefei Intermediate People’s Court in rural Anhui province. The apparent star is Gu Kailai, the Black Spider of the Red Chambers, wife of princeling Bo Xilai – the adored Party head in Chongqin and Politburo member who styled himself as the reincarnation of Mao Zedong and was later disgraced. 

It took a mere eight hours for the prosecution to show that Gu did murder British businessman Neil Heywood on November 15, 2011. Heywood, who was always impeccably dressed, a fluent Mandarin speaker, and who drove a Jaguar with a 007 number plate, had been doing dodgy business with Bo and Gu for a long time. He helped her buy hot property in Hong Kong. Yet Gu may have decided to dial M for murder when Heywood demanded a higher cut for a long-running money laundering operation that may have stretched to $350m.

Later, in the requisite gory titbit, a court official would disclose that Gu herself poured cyanide down Heywood’s throat after he had become drunk and vomited in a hotel room in Chongqing.

Meet the (invisible) fallen hero

Then take a sweeping panoramic shot over Beidaihe – a resort near Beijing which Mao called his “red citadel” – where a secret conclave is busy scripting the ascension of the first generation of party members formed after the death of the Great Helmsman. Expect a lot of tough guys letting off steam – with multiple factions positioned for as much of a power grab as possible; yet at the end, they must sell the idea of a smooth transition.

As to what really happened, it’s up to a screenwriter’s fancy. Building up on the drama, the simultaneous “trial of the century” and the secret conclave – the reconstruction of the perfect murder and the construction of a political/economic future – were maddeningly mysterious and inaccessible to mere mortals.

Trying to craft a narrative to make sense, flashbacks would show Heywood’s body found in the hotel room; the murky story of Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun showing up at the US Consulate 170 miles away in Chengdu and telling startled US officials about the murder; the British Embassy urging local authorities to reopen the case; Wang “disappeared” by Chinese security; Bo Xilai fired and then suspended from the Party; Gu under investigation; and the scene set for the “trial of the century”. 

Our movie would also show that essentially the trial boiled down to a deal. Gu – a former lawyer – “confessed” in a carefully scripted admission and won’t be executed for lack of crucial evidence, while the Party, to its relief, was released from suspended animation. Yes, because in this apparent whodunit the whole plot was never about the Black Spider – but about the (invisible) male lead/fallen hero Bo Xilai.

Here is the “approved” official account, distributed by Xinhua. It’s all that the world, who would have loved to be inside that court, will be allowed to know. The name “Bo Xilai” is so explosive that it does not appear even once.   

This means any discussion of concentric levels of Party-sanctioned (or tolerated) corruption was simply erased. That also suggests that Bo – although disgraced – won’t be criminally prosecuted. He knows too much and still has support among powerful Party circles; if he opened his mouth he could bring the whole house down.  

Shakespeare does Chongqin  

The rise and fall of Bo Xilai is Shakespeare meets Beijing opera. Scenes would detail how he became the Party’s ultimate Great Yellow Hope – possibly on his way to the very top, at least as one of the nine eminences at the Politburo Standing Committee.

But even for a princeling – the sons of revolutionary leaders now the lords of new China – he went overboard. His charisma was too infectious; he was too populist; he exhumed Maoist “red songs”; he displayed no holds barred naked ambition; and – big mistake – he antagonised the wrong people, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Worse still: Bo and Gu’s son Guagua shamelessly – and trans-continentally – flaunted his wealth, epitomising everything wrong about big, brass China.  

Still, the inside word in Beijing is that Hu Jintao himself chose not to criminally charge Bo (the Hefei judges, by the way, were all nominated by Hu faithful). In exchange Hu ended up placing all “his” men at the Politburo, and will probably remain the head of the powerful Central Military Commission for two extra years.

Beijing may have sold the illusion – to the outside world but especially to 1.3 billion Chinese – that the whole proceedings were lawful, while preserving the sacrosanct “Party unity”. Is it that simple? Of course not.

This Mandarin version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment also happens to double as the tale of a sacrificial lamb – with fascinating historic parallels.

Murder, cover-ups and a political conspiracy?

In 1976 the female sacrificial lamb was the ferocious Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow, and her three accomplices in the Gang of Four, who were blamed for the Cultural Revolution disaster. In 2012 the female sacrificial lamb is Gu and her three accomplices – Bo Xilai, his sidekick Wang Lijun and bodyguard Zhang Xiaojun (he’s the one who may actually have forced Heywood to ingest cyanide). They were blamed by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao himself of trying to drag China back to Maoism.

Gu, at first the Black Spider who shook the Party to its core, now can even be cast – again, by the Party – in the role of “martyr” (for the nation, or for the Money Laundering God?) The new official narrative emphasises her “mental problems” and her drama as a caring mother trying to protect her son Guagua from evil foreigner Heywood. At least she won’t have to face a firing squad.    

Here’s what was filtered. The Politburo Standing Committee – as in the ultra-refined oligarchy of China’s “deciders” – from now on is made up of only seven members, instead of nine (the Politburo is made up of 25 members).

Everyone knew it but now it’s official: Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will follow Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao as President and Prime Minister until 2022.

All the 25 Politburo names have been decided, even though no one has the full list.  

Bo Xilai will be internally punished alongside a bunch of functionaries and even generals who were about to launch a neo-Maoist coup (at least according to the Party’s official version).

Put a Mao in your market

There are rumblings the mandarins in Beidaihe have also discussed the role of the state in China’s economy, and how to bridge the inequality gap between the plutocracy and the masses; how to set up a justice system independent from the Party; and how to reign in widespread corruption and abuse of power.

But unlike the predetermined conclusion of the Black Spider’s trial, the verdict is open on how the mandarins will bridge the gap between ironclad communist ideology and runaway greed, lofty moral standards and unbridled corruption, revolutionary myth and capitalist reality, and “market socialism” and neoliberalism.

A homicide, a purge, a rash of condemnations, widespread censorship, recycled Confucianism, re-education, repression, ego wars – the whole thing shrouded in mystery. It simply doesn’t add up; it is a remixed Sun Tzu’s Art of War sprinkled with trashy Hollywood antics. Beyond the lethal kiss of the Hefei trial and the Beidaihe conclave, the ultimate Chinese opera continues. Up next: The Trials and Tribulations of Maoist turbo-capitalism?

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

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