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Bo Xilai, the insider brought down by his tendency to break rules


Former party boss blazed a lurid trail across Chinese politics, and it was clear that rivals and enemies were keen to topple him


With its sensational details, compelling star and titillating glimpses into the lives of China's political elite, the trial of Bo Xilai was an extraordinary and often implausible drama.

"Not even the worst TV scriptwriter would come up with something like this," the politician remarked of the prosecution case – before claiming the scandal blew up when he caught his wife receiving his right-hand man's declaration of love.

Bo's flair, quick wit and charm in court were typical of the man. So, too, was his defiance. His spectacular fall was a matter of both circumstance and character. No one could have foreseen the manner of the Chinese politician's toppling. If his wife had not befriended and then turned against a British businessman with links to MI6 – and if his former police chief had not sought shelter with US diplomats to accuse her of Neil Heywood's murder – Bo may well have remained one of China's most powerful men. The Chongqing party secretary could even have risen to the top political body in last autumn's transition of power.

Yet Bo's vaulting ambition was evident even to casual observers, and frightening to his peers. He blazed a lurid trail across Chinese politics. Long before news of Heywood's death emerged, it was clear that rivals and enemies were keen to contain him and, perhaps, bring him down.

"He was a stupid, stupid politician," said one who knew him for many years. "If you become president of China, then you can tell people to say you are number one. [If not] you will be fighting with a lot of high-ranking people."

Bo was tall, handsome, charismatic and utterly self-assured. "He oozed suaveness," recalled a foreigner who met him on official business.

Some saw him as the closest thing China had to a western-style politician, comparing him to JFK and Berlusconi. But liberals saw him as a quasi-Maoist figure, seeking to leverage popular support to take on – or take out – opponents.

To enthusiasts he was a visionary, speaking to a public who feel left behind in China's economic boom. To sceptics, he was an opportunist prone to gimmicks – such as the attractive policewomen who paraded around Dalian on horseback when he ran the city. He drove his staff hard around the clock and fixated on minutiae. Despite aspiring to the top table of Chinese politics, he personally chose the carpet for government buildings.

Bo was both a consummate insider and a rule-breaker; perhaps his background as the son of a Communist "immortal" gave him the confidence and connections to do things differently.

"Bo Xilai did not really obey the rules as other leaders did because his father was Bo Yibo. He was promoted because of his political background … He used his personal charm," said a scholar and former schoolmate.

As a teenager, said old classmates from Beijing's No 4 Middle School, Bo was the quietest of three brothers: clever, but introverted and unremarkable.

Cultural Revolution

The institution, though public was packed with the children of powerful leaders. In 1966, when Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution, well-connected students – including Bo's elder brother – were at the heart of Red Guard groups.

Some of the teenagers beat and tortured teachers. At No 4 they were held captives in a room that bore the words "long live the red terror" scrawled across a wall in blood.

But the political tide soon reversed as Mao turned on the elite. Bo's father was purged and tortured; his mother died at the hands of Red Guards – Bo told friends she had been beaten to death.

Soon afterwards the teenager was jailed in a brutal prison camp. The precise reasons are unclear, though he claimed privately that he had been caught desecrating a picture of Mao's wife Jiang Qing, who had spurred on the Cultural Revolution.

Millions of families were damaged or destroyed in that decade, including those of senior leaders. But when it finally ended, their children enjoyed a rapid rehabilitation.

Bo studied international history at Peking University, then journalism; Stephen Mackinnon, who taught him, recalls a patriotic but not particularly ideological student who was developing a presence. With his captivating smile, Bo was handsome – "and he knew it".

He became an official on graduation and began his climb through the ranks in north-east China in 1984.

His second wife, Gu Kailai, claimed that was when they met; actually, her elder sister was married to the brother of Bo's first wife, Li Danyu, whom he divorced that year. Li has said Bo and Gu were dance partners and may have had an affair.

By the 1990s, Bo was making waves as mayor of Dalian. People lauded its quality of life; he moved factories to the city's edges and beautified the centre.

"There was a flamboyance. He wanted to have the best football team in China, to have fashion shows," said Mackinnon, who visited his former student there.

"He would jump out of the car and talk to an old lady in the street; he was not hiding behind the shades. He was engaging people, at least superficially."

He was seen as a leader who could get things done, and wanted people to know it.

"He liked to take credit for his contributions. He liked to make a show," said a former official who dealt with him at the time. "In China, people with that kind of personality end up like this."

Bo was promoted to governor of Liaoning and, in 2004, became China's minister of commerce.

He impressed foreign businessmen and politicians, but alienated more peers; though he rose to the 25-member politburo in 2007, his appointment as party secretary of Chongqing was a sideways step. But instead of dampening Bo's ambitions, it seems to have spurred him on.

Soaring deficit

He continued to woo foreign investors and indulge in extravagant urban improvement: in 2010, his campaign to replace mature banyan trees with ginkgos ill-suited to the climate cost the city around $1.5bn. The government deficit soared.

More dramatic was a mass campaign to promote Communist culture and a hardline drive against organised crime and officials who sheltered it.

The latter, spearheaded by police chief Wang Lijun, involved the arrest of 2,000 alleged gangsters.

The tactics were popular on the ground; there is nostalgia for his reign in Dalian and Chongqing, where many accept he was corrupt but say he looked out for ordinary people. Bo burnished his man-of-the-people credentials even as his trial reached its climax: "There are 14 counties in Chongqing below the poverty line. I visited every one," he declared in court.

Others called him a tyrant: "Some people were cheated by his tricks," said retired official Fang Hong, who spent a year in a labour camp after posting a scatological poem mocking Bo online.

"He made Chongqing regress at least 20 years politically and economically … The debt [he ran up] will not be paid by the government, but citizens. He did nothing good for Chongqing."

Liberals across the country were disturbed by the anti-gang drive's ruthlessness, particularly when an alleged mob boss's lawyer was jailed for falsifying evidence. Torture was rife; officials and entrepreneurs who had run afoul of Bo were targeted, their assets seized and redistributed. Meanwhile, his friends prospered.

Bo's tactics were, perhaps, even more alarming to those at the top of the party, who had spent the post-Mao years seeking to operate by consensus and ensure that a new strongman could not emerge by appealing to the masses over the heads of his peers.

"Bo was obviously a powerful advocate for whatever he was advocating; he was charismatic and was very definitely – in the post-Deng Xiaoping era – behaving contrary to the normal way," said Roderick Macfarquhar, an expert on Chinese politics at Harvard University.

That may have particularly concerned other leaders because Xi Jinping had "a backstage bargain": while chosen by the party elite, he is the first leader who was not picked out by one of China's founders.

"I think it's quite possible that Bo Xilai would have taken advantage of any splits in politburo standing committee views to edge Xi aside," added Macfarquhar.

By autumn 2011, there were already suggestions that Bo's fortunes were ebbing. Investigators were circling. Several of Wang Lijun's former colleagues in north-east China were picked up; a classic tactic in such situations is to take down subordinates, building the case against the man at the centre.

When Wang confronted Bo with his trump card – the claim that Gu had murdered Heywood – the politician slapped him in the face. Then he cut him loose. It may have been another overreach; he thought his ally disposable. Or he may have gambled that he could not survive unless he took down Wang himself.

TV drama

Bo's account of the confrontation was still more redolent of a TV drama: he said he had walked in on Wang declaring his love to Gu Kailai.

Having seen Bo's tactics firsthand, the police chief fled to Chengdu's US consulate, despite the risk of being labelled a traitor. His move ensured that the Communist party's private dramas became humiliatingly public.

Bo's own misjudgment upped the ante. Amid the chaos, he made an unscheduled trip to the Kunming headquarters of the 14th army, which his father had founded. Most likely, he hoped to remind his colleagues to tread carefully given his connections. If so, it appears to have backfired.

At the annual gathering of the country's essentially rubber-stamp parliament he gave a typically defiant performance, hitting out at the critics "pouring filth" over his family.

But days later premier Wen Jiabao, whose distaste for Bo was widely known, publicly attacked him.

The following day, it emerged that the Chongqing party boss had been sacked. In September, after months of rumour and innuendo, state media announced that he faced criminal charges for taking huge bribes and abusing his power – including bearing "major responsibility" in relation to Heywood's murder.

The relative modesty of the charges he eventually faced, and the unusual detail offered of his trial, reflect his connections and enduring support, particularly on the left – just as the unexpectedly tough sentence reflects the opposition to him.

Even in defeat, Bo has made sure he matters. In a letter purportedly written from prison to his family, published by the South China Morning Post earlier this week, Bo said he would follow in the footsteps of his father, who was purged twice but returned to the highest levels of the party. He vowed to "wait quietly in prison" for his name to be cleared – but, intriguingly, also mentioned his wish that his sons might "take over the family tradition". Sources close to the family differ on whether the document is genuine.

A few think it is even possible that Bo himself could one day re-emerge as a significant force. "As long as he is alive there is a very small chance that he might reappear at some stage, not being rehabilitated by the establishment, but if the system should get into trouble down the line," said Steve Tsang, an expert on Chinese politics at Nottingham University.

Other Chinese scholars suggest a different kind of legacy, seeing echoes of his tactics in Xi Jinping's approach with initiatives such as the "mass line" rectification campaign to purify the party.

"The chance that Bo returns to politics as a candidate for the leadership is zero," said Cheng Li, of the Brookings Institution. "But he will remain as a factor that may shape the political trajectory of the country in the years to come."