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A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel
Murder, Money, and an Epic Power Struggle in China
By Pin Ho
By Wenguang Huang
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The scandalous story of the corruption of the Bo Xilai family — the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood; Bo’s secret lovers; the secret maneuverings of Bo’s supporters; the hasty trial and sentencing of Gu Kailai, Bo’s wife — was just the first rumble of a seismic power struggle that continues to rock the very foundation of China’s all-powerful Communist Party. By the time it is over, the machinations in Beijing and throughout the country that began with Bo’s fall could affect China’s economic development and disrupt the world’s political and economic order.
Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang have pieced together the details of this fascinating political drama from firsthand reporting and an unrivaled array of sources, some very high in the Chinese government. This was the first scandal in China to play out in the international media — details were leaked, sometimes invented, to non-Chinese news outlets as part of the power plays that rippled through the government. The attempt to manipulate the Western media, especially, was a fundamental dimension to the story, and one that affected some of the early reporting. A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel returns to the scene of the crime and shows not only what happened in Room 1605 but how the threat of the story was every bit as important in the life and death struggle for power that followed. It touched celebrities and billionaires and redrew the cast of the new leadership of the Communist Party. The ghost of Neil Heywood haunts China to this day.
CAST OF CHARACTERS*
Neil Heywood—Former British business consultant in China.
Wang Lulu—Neil Heywood’s Chinese wife.
Wang Lijun—Former police chief and deputy mayor of Chongqing.
Guo Weiguo—Former deputy police chief of Chongqing.
Bo Xilai (bo-shee-lai)—Former party chief of Chongqing and a Politburo member.
Bo Yibo—Bo Xilai’s father and a revolutionary veteran who was a Politburo member and served as China’s vice premier before his death in 2007.
Bo Guagua—Bo Xilai’s son, who now resides in the US.
Gu Kailai—Bo Xilai’s wife and a former lawyer.
Gu Jingsheng—Gu Kailai’s father and a former military general before his death in 2004.
Fan Chengxiu—Gu Kailai’s mother and a retired Communist Party official.
Li Danyu—Bo Xilai’s ex-wife and an army doctor.
Wen Qiang—Former deputy police chief of Chongqing who was executed on corruption charges in 2010.
Zhou Yongkang—Close ally of Bo Xilai and former member of the Politburo Standing Committee who was dubbed China’s security czar.
Xu Ming (sh-yu-ming)—Billionaire businessman in the city of Dalian and close friend of Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai.
Xi Jinping (shee-jeen-ping)—Princeling and current Communist Party general secretary and president of China.
Xi Zhongxun—Xi Jinping’s father and a revolutionary veteran who was governor of Guangdong province before his death in 2002.
Hu Jintao—Former Communist Party general secretary (2002–2012) and president of China (2003–2013).
Ling Jihua—Hu Jintao’s former chief of staff and Bo Xilai’s “deep throat” who now heads the United Front Work Department.
Wen Jiabao—Former premier of China (2003–2013).
Jiang Zemin—Former Communist Party general secretary (1989–2002) and president of China (1993–2003).
Li Keqiang—Current premier of China.
* We follow the Chinese tradition by placing family names first.
The Fate of a Kuli
Kuli, pronounced “cool-lee,” is an ancient term referring to an official or police officer who relied on extreme means of torture and brutality to help his master maintain power.
THE STRANGER’S PHONE CALL
LUNAR NEW YEAR PREDICTIONS are taken seriously in China, if only in the hope that the coming year will be better than the one just passed. At midnight on January 23, 2012, Chinese people around the world ushered in the Year of the Dragon. Though the mythical creature symbolizes strength, power, and good fortune, many were wary of its fiery nature, which heralds volatility and change. “China will have some political surprises,” a newspaper in Hong Kong quoted a fortune-teller as saying. “In the second half of the year, a scandalous corruption case will be exposed in China. A number of high-ranking officials will be forced to step down. Some may be thrown behind bars, or even pass away.”
“Political surprises” was a fairly safe bet and was glossed over amid the celebrations in mainland China, where the government-controlled media hyped up the dragon’s auspicious associations, such as “harmony” and “grand takeoff of the Chinese economy.” In private, many in the leadership would have shared the fortuneteller’s foreboding. The 18th Party Congress was scheduled for the fall, when a new generation of thoroughly vetted leaders who had won fierce power struggles would take over. Leadership transitions historically have been times of political intrigue and conspiracy, and during the past two decades a common and effective way to eliminate a challenger or political opponent was to link a rival with a corruption scandal. President Jiang Zemin employed the trick to consolidate his power, as did his successor, President Hu Jintao. In a one-party state such as China, jockeying for influence is a raw reality of the political system. There is nowhere else to go, so all fighting must be infighting. However, nobody, not even the fortune-teller, expected that the first political surprise of the new year would come even before the fifteen-day celebration was completed. And I was an unwitting messenger.
On February 2, I was in Taiwan. While I waited in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Taipei for an early morning meeting, my cell phone rang. “Are you the publisher of Mingjing News?” asked a low, nervous voice, referring to one of my US-based Chinese-language news sites specializing in exclusive coverage of Chinese politics. When I said yes, the voice whispered, “Please give me a private number. I have something important to share with you.” Intrigue is everywhere in greater China and I’d encountered similar situations before. I gave the man, who sounded middle-aged, a colleague’s cell phone number. The conversation was brief. The caller identified himself as an official at the Communist Party’s Municipal Committee for Discipline Inspection in Chongqing. The caller disclosed that Wang Lijun, the city’s police chief, had just been sacked and was under internal investigation and charged with corruption. I was skeptical. The caller noticed and raised his voice in agitation: “Trust me. It’s 10,000 percent correct!”
Wang Lijun had made a name for himself in the city’s much-publicized campaign to crack down on corruption and organized crime. He was said to have been seriously wounded more than twenty times fighting gangs, and the local and national media played him up as the “Iron Blooded Police Spirit.” More important, he was the right-hand man of Bo Xilai, the party chief of Chongqing and a rising political star.
If Wang was under arrest, it was a significant story. I rescheduled my appointment and contacted a source, a senior official with the Chongqing municipal government, to verify the information. Though the source confirmed that Wang would no longer head the public security bureau, he was not aware of any internal investigation against Wang, adding, “Don’t forget, he’s still the deputy mayor.”
But I knew that even if Wang were allowed to keep the title of deputy mayor, he was obviously on his way out, because the public security department had been the real base of his power.
As a journalist and writer, I have covered Chinese politics for more than twenty-five years, first for the government media in mainland China and subsequently for numerous newspapers in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In the 1990s, I started an overseas independent publishing company, aiming to provide a free forum for writers in and out of China, where such opportunities are not available. Even though the books and magazines I have published remain banned in mainland China, tourists smuggle them in from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Moreover, a large number of Chinese Internet users employ proxy servers to access the content on Mingjing News. Over the years, I have received a steady stream of news tips and article submissions from senior officials and their friends—well-connected businesspeople, Chinese journalists, and scholars, all of whom represent different political factions and viewpoints. Some attempt to fight the government propaganda machine by revealing the true stories behind certain political decisions, or exposing corruption scandals within the party and the government out of a sense of justice, whereas others have no such noble intent, aiming to smear their political opponents with a mixture of truth and rumor or to advance certain political agendas. These “deep throats” understand that they can effectively influence public opinions. With the explosion of Internet technology, news in the overseas media is available in China in seconds—despite the government’s firewalls.
Based on the anonymous tip and my own research, I dictated the Wang Lijun story to a colleague, who posted it on Mingjing News at eleven o’clock in the morning China time. In the story, I mentioned Wang could be under investigation for alleged corruption.
I had no idea that the one hundred-word news item, which soon spread across the Internet, would become the prelude to a political drama that contains all the elements of what the Chinese call da pian, or Hollywood tent-pole production—raw ambitions, secret succession plots, historical feuds, shifting alliances, murder, espionage, power marriages, and sexual trysts. The cast would include some of the most influential politicians, business moguls, army generals, and TV celebrities, whose formal photographic portraits often appear on the front pages of Chinese and Western newspapers, and the faceless women who supposedly control their men “behind the bamboo curtains.” The locales for the drama would include tiny, winding streets in the mountain city of Chongqing and an idyllic seaside resort in the UK. The events that have been unfolding in China since February 2, 2012, are not part of what the director or directors of the movie led us to believe: a battle between the good and evil, or a conflict between Maoist radicals and moderate reformists. What we are seeing is political intrigue and power struggle—different cliques competing for the top positions—many driven as much by personal loyalties and generational ties as they are by ideological differences.
TWO HOURS AFTER my website posted the news of Wang’s sacking, press officers at the Chongqing municipal government, which administers some 30 million people, released a short announcement on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter and Facebook:
The Chongqing Municipal Party Committee has recently decided that Comrade Wang Lijun will no longer serve as the chief and Party secretary of the Municipal Public Security Bureau. As the deputy mayor, he will be in charge of science research, education and environment.
The “deputy mayor” reference reminded me of an article in the Hong Kong–based New Century Magazine, which reported on the staged mayoral election in March 2011 at Chongqing’s People’s Congress, the equivalent of a state legislature in the US. All the mayoral candidates on the ballot were preselected by the party and delegates merely rubber-stamped every name. Wang’s name was on the ballot. Even though the city had just awarded him the “People’s Protector” honor, several delegates abstained from voting for Wang. Embarrassed, the head of the Congress annulled the vote and initiated several more rounds of voting until every delegate voted yes; the government media wanted to state Wang had been chosen unanimously.
A year later, the same people who had given him “unanimous” support were plotting his exit. Wang was allowed to remain as deputy mayor, but his responsibilities had shifted from his areas of expertise—public security, national security, judiciary, citizen petitions, and political stabilities—to fields about which he knew nothing. It was the first sure sign that Wang had really done something wrong.
The anonymous caller’s tip that Wang might be under investigation for corruption charges sounded credible and did not surprise me or other political analysts overseas. In a country plagued with rampant corruption, no Communist official is immune. In 2009, Wang’s predecessor, Wen Qiang, who had held the deputy police chief’s position in Chongqing for sixteen years and cracked several of China’s high-profile criminal cases, was executed for bribery and ties with organized crime.
However, the Chongqing government seemed to go out of its way to dispel the rumor that Wang Lijun was under such investigation. Soon after the city’s short statement was posted, a copy of Wang’s “performance evaluation” surfaced on the Internet. In the review, which had been prepared by Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai’s office for the mayoral election the year before, the former police chief was characterized as being “politically firm and reliable, principled and possessing a strong sense of responsibility.” He was a “tough and impartial” cop who “enjoys a high reputation among the masses.” Occasionally, the review said, Wang “displays impatience at work and lacks diplomacy when criticizing others.”
On the surface, it seemed Wang’s temperament and confrontational style were the cause of his job change and there was no hidden agenda. A Hong Kong newspaper went so far as to cite a source in Chongqing as saying that by assigning him to new areas, his boss, Bo Xilai, hoped Wang could expand his experience and prepare for “bigger things” in the future.
Behind such bland assurances, the Chongqing government was in crisis control mode, trying to downplay Wang’s firing. Meanwhile, political insiders in Chongqing and Beijing were busy contacting overseas media via secure mobile channels, churning out completely different stories.
The following day, the same anonymous caller reached me once again, with a “Didn’t I tell you it’s 10,000 percent true” tone. Self-congratulation was not the only purpose of his call. He wanted to share still more startling revelations. In an encrypted e-mail he sent subsequently, he wrote:
Several business people bribed Wang by buying him houses in Beijing, Dalian and Chongqing. Wang was also implicated in a corruption scandal in the city of Tieling, where he served as police chief for twenty-two years. Three senior police officers, all of whom were Wang’s friends, had been convicted of taking bribes and embezzling government construction funds.
In addition, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection charged Wang with colluding with organized crime syndicates to monopolize the sale and production of minerals in early 2000 when he was deputy mayor in the city of Jinzhou. After Wang was transferred to Chongqing, he had awarded profitable contracts to his friends, pocketing thousands of yuan in commissions and depositing the money abroad. For example, a clothing factory tailored uniforms for the public security bureau in Chongqing. Each set cost about two hundred yuan but they were sold at four thousand yuan per set. Lastly, Wang changed the name of the Chongqing Public Security Bureau to “Police Administration” and altered the police uniform design. All of these were done without the approval of the central government. The leadership in Beijing was shocked and outraged. At the moment, several of Wang’s business partners and friends, including his driver, are being detained for investigation.
In the face of these corruption allegations, Bo Xilai decided to act fast to distance himself by sacking Wang from the police chief’s position.
In retaliation, Wang had sent a thick letter by express mail to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, accusing Bo and his wife of taking bribes and transferring a large sum of assets abroad.
The allegations were shocking, but some, such as “colluding with organized crime syndicates to monopolize the sale and production of minerals,” sounded far-fetched and lacked proof. Because I had no time to e-mail or call my contacts to corroborate the details, I put the story aside until I could check the claims.
Two hours later, a colleague in the US informed me of an “exclusive” insider’s story on Boxun, a popular user-generated Chinese-language news site in the US. I skimmed through it and realized it was the same story that the anonymous caller had provided to me. The Boxun “exclusive” sparked a slew of reactions in the overseas Chinese media. “The newly released reports about Wang’s accusation against Bo and his wife have added elements of uncertainties to Bo Xilai’s blatant attempt to join the Politburo Standing Committee at the upcoming party congress,” broadcast Voice of America.
The next day, as I was pondering the accuracy of Wang’s claims against Bo Xilai, the same persistent caller got ahold of me, expressing his disappointment that I had not yet published the information he had e-mailed. He teased me with more anecdotes:
Wang acted like he had been possessed by an angry ghost. When two officials showed up at Wang’s office to inform him that he would no longer be the police chief and urge him to hand over his weapons, Wang was so confrontational that he pulled out his handgun and subsequently smashed his water glass in anger. He threatened to expose the illegal activities of Bo and his wife if anyone dared harm him. Wang even requested a transfer back to Beijing or Liaoning province, claiming that his life was in danger.
Meanwhile, a “princeling”—as children of senior Communist officials are known—e-mailed me through a secure mobile channel from Beijing. He offered a similar version, but with a twist:
Wang became emotional after Bo took away his police chief’s position and locked himself up in an office on the fifteenth floor of the Municipal Public Security Bureau building, one level below the department’s ammunition warehouse. Worrying that Wang would get out of control and access the warehouse, officials there put him under surveillance. Wang was tipped off. He thought the surveillance [team] was meant to assassinate him.
Boxun and Mingjing posted the unverified stories. By then it had become clear to me that some invisible hands were out to destroy not only Wang but also, by association, the Chongqing party chief, Bo Xilai, and that the deliberate leaks or rumors could further antagonize Bo and Wang, pushing them to take extreme action against each other.
Bo Xilai had definitely seen the overseas coverage. On February 3, he emerged. At a conference on publicity and culture work, Bo remarked, “Each time something happens in our city, the hostile forces painstakingly make up stories and spread vicious rumors. Their intent is to cause chaos. This is an invisible battle, but the fight is fierce. . . . We cannot neglect our propaganda front. This is a hard job. Information itself might be soft and invisible, but its results are concrete and hard. We should provide a large amount of healthy and uplifting information to the press. We should focus on our strengths and build our steely stamina.”
Wang resurfaced on February 5. He acted very cooperatively in public, as if he were busy adapting to his new role. A TV clip showed him visiting the Chongqing municipal education department and then the Chongqing Normal University, where he looked poised and listened attentively to reports from the school authorities. When commenting on his new assignment, Wang said with apparent sincerity, “This is a new challenge for me and a great learning opportunity.” Wang and Bo had presented a seemingly unified front, suggesting that the rumors were malicious and that each man would be continuing as normal, although Wang had been assigned new duties. The pretense lasted barely forty-eight hours.
THE UNEXPECTED VISITOR
NO. 4 CONSULATE ROAD is a sprawling white cinder-block building in the southwestern city of Chengdu, reached by a tree-lined street south of the crowded city center. It is the US Consulate, where thirty or so American officials handle mostly visa applications and commercial affairs for southwestern China.
Students and residents applying for visas to study and visit the US come to the consulate from Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan, and Tibet. In the past, the line for visa interviews would begin forming around midnight, made up mostly of young college graduates. On a normal day, the visa line was up to two blocks long by the time the doors opened in the morning. “It looked like every young person with family connections and money wanted to go to America,” a local resident recalled.
Appointments these days are arranged online and via telephone, the line in front of the consulate is rarely more than a sizeable gaggle, and the street scene is serene. Even as China gradually emerged as an economic powerhouse, enthusiasm about studying or living in the US never waned. Many young Chinese still see the consulate as holder of the key to an exciting and free life in the home of Microsoft and Apple, Hollywood movies, and multinational investment banks. Others see it as an expression of American imperialism, especially when China and the US spar over human rights or trade issues. On the Google satellite map, beneath the address of the consulate, was a comment in Chinese: “The place looks ominous. People come here to betray their country and surrender to our enemy.”
For ordinary residents, the consulate, guarded by frozen-faced Chinese police, looked mysterious and inaccessible, a place that bore little relevance to their lives. The perception changed on the cold, windy evening of February 7, 2012.
Many commuters found themselves stuck in the area near the US Consulate, which was suddenly cordoned off. Dozens of police cars with flashing lights lined the street. Checkpoints were set up on every cross street. Police directed traffic and yelled at pedestrians who attempted to slip past. Frustrated commuters posted pictures on Weibo trying to figure out what had happened, and people in the city and around the country soon learned about the news.
A person with the alias “Gray Wolf in the Desert” tweeted:
Does anyone know which VIP is visiting the US Consulate? There are about several hundred policemen surrounding the US Consulate—armed police, traffic police, ranger police, you name it.
Another posting stated:
Police are everywhere. I’ve been waiting in the cold for an hour and can’t go home. Lights on the streets have been turned off. Fully armed police are posted around the Friendship Hotel next to the US Consulate. If they are not making a movie, it means something major has happened.
As questions swirled around cyberspace, another Weibo user noticed that the police were towing an SUV that had been parked in front of the consulate. Judging from the license plate number, the car belonged to a government official in the city of Chongqing. By midnight, Wei Jiuru, a lawyer in Beijing, cited a government source as saying, “Wang Lijun, the deputy mayor of Chongqing, has escaped into the US Consulate to seek asylum.”
The news quickly circulated, touching off a tidal wave of speculation. A person with the alias of “Koki-Wong” added more details: “Wang Lijun claims that Bo Xilai is out to assassinate him. So he is now hiding inside the US Consulate. At the moment, the US Consulate is under siege. A large number of armed police from Chongqing are there to get Wang Lijun. I think he will evaporate from this world soon!”
By the time offices opened on the morning of February 8, Internet censors had deleted every posting about the incident, but by then everyone knew about Wang’s attempted defection.
In a country where the government operates in secrecy and the media serves as the “mouthpiece” of the party, Weibo is tearing down the walls that block the information flow across the country. When anything major happens in China, netizens ignore state TV, radio, and newspapers and look to Weibo for their information. This is especially true for controversial events when regular media outlets are restricted and required to keep quiet and follow official lines. More than 300 million people subscribe to Weibo on Sina, one of China’s largest Internet search portals, with daily posts exceeding 100 million. The popularity of Weibo has posed a major problem for Beijing, which finds it difficult to shut down or simply ignore a Weibo site. Oftentimes the government has to respond to reports on Weibo, such has been the pressure of posts.
The Chongqing municipal government turned to its Weibo shortly before eleven o’clock on the morning of February 8 and issued a ludicrous one-line comment:
Chongqing deputy mayor and former police chief Wang Lijun, 52, is undergoing “vacation-style treatment” due to his heavy workload and stress.
That merely fueled further speculation and ridicule. In a matter of hours, “vacation-style treatment” became the most popular political buzzword online.
One sarcastic posting stated, “Getting a vacation-style treatment in the US Consulate? Did he defect or seek vacation-style treatment? What a blatant lie, unheard of in Chinese history!”
Realizing the absurdity of its statement, the Chongqing municipal government removed it from its Weibo but reposted it an hour later, then removed it again. To many, it was an indication that local officials had lost direction and did not know what to do.
Wang’s defection had caught Beijing off guard. While senior leaders were mulling over a solution, government censors were left without directions. They waited for instructions, unsure what they should be blocking and what could go through; their inaction allowed comments and news leaks to flood the network. Wang Xing, a journalist with China’s Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, found out from a contact at the Chengdu Municipal Public Security Bureau that Wang Lijun had left Chengdu. His newspaper spiked the story, so he posted it on Weibo: “Wang Lijun was taken away [from the US Consulate] this morning in a car provided by the Sichuan Provincial Public Security Department. He then flew to Beijing.” The posting proved to be true.
Western media outlets, such as Forbes, Reuters, the New York Times, and Voice of America, contacted the US Embassy in Beijing to verify the details. Richard Buangan, US Embassy spokesman, said he was “not in a position to comment regarding reported requests for asylum.” On the night of February 8, under intense media pressure, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed in Washington that Wang had requested a meeting with the Chengdu consul two days earlier, then “left of his own volition.” Nuland declined to comment on whether Wang had requested asylum.
This deeply knowledgeable account of the rise and fall of regional Communist Party boss Bo Xilai (whose wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted of Heywood's murder) by veteran journalists Ho and Huang reveals the weaknesses of top party leadership . The authors unravel the myriad threads of politburo-level power struggleswhich make the Borgias look like rank amateursweaving together a narrative that includes obscene wealth and corruption, orgies, and totaled Ferraris on the streets of Beijing. This expert account is bolstered by the authors' willingness to admit that the story is so complex that unless Heywood's spirit can find a medium, the whole truth about the November 15 murder may never be known.'”
The authors have done an admirable job of sorting through the contradictions, half-truths and outright lies perpetrated by all the players in this drama. Their careful research and meticulous explanations will help everyone from general readers to veteran China-watchers sort out the meaning of Bo Xilai's rise and fall.”
The light this book shines on the secretive world of Chinese politics makes it an especially important work. A must read for all China watchers; those interested in real-life murder mysteries and complex political scheming will also find it fascinating."
Howard French, Wall Street Journal
The most revealing work on the Bo episode to date. What emerges is an immensely complicated tale of behind-the-scenes power struggles as full of scandal, ambition and betrayal as anything that ancient history has to offer . The authors' account has the considerable merit of understanding that the surface plot built around Heywood's murder isn't the most interesting element in this narrative. They show how Mr. Bo's undoing had its roots in the country's intense but normally invisible factional jousting . The narrative is thrilling and believable, based as it is on the information that Chinese officials leak to the press as part of their infighting . The overall picture of elite politics in China is a devastating one of wanton ambition and lawlessness.”
A gripping telling of the incident that would make for a great thriller novel—if it weren't all true.”
As a lurid tale of wealthy and powerful people behaving badly, the authors' account of what has been unfolding in China since November 2011 can't be beat.”
A true-crime murder mystery from 2011 set in a remote Chinese city, with an outsized impact on governance of the vast nation . The authors weave a fascinating, dark narrative web.”
- On Sale
- Apr 2, 2013
- Page Count
- 352 pages