Bo Xilai (born 3 July 1949) is a Chinese former politician. He came to prominence through his tenures as the mayor of Dalian and then the governor of Liaoning. From 2004 to November 2007, he served as Minister of Commerce. Between 2007 and 2012, he served as a member of the Central Politburo and secretary of the Communist Party’s Chongqing branch. On 22 September 2013, Bo was found guilty of corruption, stripped of all his assets, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The son of Bo Yibo, one of the Eight Elders of the Communist Party of China, Bo Xilai is one of the “princelings” of Chinese politics. He cultivated a casual and charismatic image in the media that marked a departure from the normally staid nature of Chinese politics.

While serving in Liaoning, Bo held an important niche in the Northeast Area Revitalization Plan. Bo initiated a campaign against organized crime, increased spending on welfare programs, maintained consistent double-digit percentage GDP growth, and campaigned to revive Cultural Revolution-era “red culture”. Bo’s promotion of egalitarian values and the achievements of his “Chongqing model” made him the champion of the Chinese New Left, composed of both Maoists and social democrats disillusioned with the country’s market-based economic reforms and increasing economic inequality. However, the perceived lawlessness of Bo’s anti-corruption campaigns, coupled with concerns about the image he cultivated, made him a controversial figure.

Bo was considered a likely candidate for promotion to the elite Politburo Standing Committee in CPC 18th National Congress in 2012. His political fortunes came to an abrupt end following the Wang Lijun incident, in which his top lieutenant and police chief sought asylum at the American consulate in Chengdu. Wang claimed to have information about the involvement of Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, who allegedly had close financial ties to the two.

In the fallout, Bo was removed as the party chief of Chongqing in March 2012 and suspended from the politburo the following month. Bo’s dismissal exposed disunity within Communist Party ranks shortly before a leadership transition, and some observers suspected that it was because he threatened Xi Jinping’s future grip on power. He was later stripped of all his party positions, lost his seat at the National People’s Congress, and was eventually expelled from the party.

Wang Lijun incident

In early 2012, the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection bolstered its presence within Chongqing as the city’s leaders came under investigation. Much of the attention focused on Bo’s police chief, Wang Lijun, who may have been under investigation for his role in a corruption case in Liaoning. Growing scrutiny over the city’s wiretapping operation against senior leaders also likely fell mainly on Wang. Although details are scarce, several sources have suggested that Wang’s resentment against Bo grew amidst the investigations—resentment that was compounded when Wang realized that he and his wife had also been targets of wiretapping under Bo’s orders.

Moreover, Wang was privy to details of Neil Heywood’s death, and had reportedly attempted to voice his concerns to Bo about alleged poisoning. Around 16 January, Wang is believed to have confronted Bo over evidence that implicated Bo’s wife in the murder. Although Bo initially agreed to allow an inquiry, he then changed course and sought to obstruct investigations.Wang was abruptly demoted on 2 February to the far less prestigious position of Vice-mayor overseeing education, science, and environmental affairs. Bo placed Wang under surveillance, and several of his close associates were reportedly taken into custody. Some reports allege that Bo may have been plotting to have Wang assassinated.

On 6 February 2012, apparently fearing for his life, Wang traveled to the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu, bringing evidence implicating Bo and his family in the Neil Heywood murder. According to reports, Wang sought and was denied asylum in the United States. He remained in the consulate for approximately 24 hours before leaving “of his own volition” and being taken into the custody of state security officials dispatched from Beijing. Local media in Chongqing announced that he was on a mental health-related sick leave.

A day after Wang’s leave, several overseas Chinese-language news websites posted an open letter allegedly penned by Wang, which sharply criticized Bo as a “hypocrite” and “the greatest gangster in China” and accused Bo of corruption.Without knowing what incriminating material Wang may have held against Bo, even Bo’s supporters in China’s top leadership were reluctant to vouch for him. Bo responded in an unusually open press conference during the 2012 National People’s Congress, acknowledging “negligent supervision” of his subordinates, saying he may have “relied upon the wrong person”.

Public reactions

Bo’s downfall elicited strong reactions among the Chinese public and with commentators across the political spectrum. Leftist websites such as Utopia, Red China, and Maoflag were full of angry commentary over Bo’s dismissal. These websites were shut down for a period of “maintenance” shortly after. Leftist commentators voiced support for Bo: Kong Qingdong called Bo’s dismissal ‘a plot by enemies of the state’; Sima Nan said associating Bo with the Cultural Revolution was a ‘smear campaign’; Sima’s pro-Bo microblogs were censored. Large numbers of sympathetic posts for Bo appeared in microblogs from Chongqing, and Dalian, where Bo was once mayor. The Global Times also wrote a sympathetic editorial. Liberal media reacted positively, criticizing Bo’s style of ‘personality-based rule’ as dangerous and regressive. Right-leaning commentators said Bo’s downfall signified a ‘correct orientation’ to China’s future development. Southern Media Group editor Yan Lieshan remarked that Bo correctly identified China’s problems but prescribed the wrong solution. Businesspeople whose assets were seized by Bo’s administration in Chongqing also reacted positively.

Bo’s dismissal caused political shockwaves unseen since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and exposing internal conflicts within Communist Party. In the weeks following 15 March, party authorities deliberated on Bo’s case.In the absence of official reports of the proceedings, microblogs churned out a flood of speculation, including rumours of a coup. In response, the authorities instructed newspapers and websites to strictly report only official releases, and arrested six people accused of ‘rumourmongering’.

Aftermath and epilogue

After Bo was jailed, the aftermath of the events set off by the Wang Lijun incident continued to reverberate across the Chinese political landscape. Xi Jinping’s accession to power resulted in a series of major political changes with significant consequences. Bo’s former supporter Zhou Yongkang retired in 2012, but was caught up in Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption dragnet in 2013, detained for investigation, and eventually sentenced to life in prison. In addition, Zhou was unable to select the successor to his office, possibly as a result of his role in the Bo Xilai scandal. The head of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which Zhou headed, no longer held a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee following the 18th Party Congress, as the number of seats on the body were reduced from nine to seven. The anti-corruption campaign following the 18th Party Congress became the biggest of its kind in the history of China under Communist rule. By 2014, Bo had been branded by some media outlets outside of China as part of a so-called “New Gang of Four” composed of disgraced officials Zhou Yongkang, Xu Caihou, and Ling Jihua.

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