Tale of the latest corruption scandal that is rattling China

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China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai (R) and his wife Gu Kailai. Photo - Reuters

By M.S. Shah Jahan

“Corruption is the most crucial threat to the ruling party” – Wen Jiabao, Chinese Premier

At an annual meeting of anti-corruption officials on 26 March, the Chinese Prime Minister had little progress to point to. He said there were frequent corruption cases in departments that possess great power and in areas where the management of funds is centralised.

On 15 March, the Communist party suddenly dismissed Bo Xilai, 62-year-old governor and party chief of Chongqing (Chungking in English), a major city in southwest China and one of the five national central cities. It is 50 times the size of London with a population of 30 million. Administratively, it is the biggest among China’s four direct-controlled municipalities – the other three are Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin.

Bo Xilai, an ambitious leader with a ‘crime-fighting boss’ reputation, was accused of trying to block a police investigation into his family by Chongqing’s police chief, Wang Lijun. According to Reuters, Wang told Bo that he believed his power-hungry, avarice lawyer wife Gu Kailai, 54, was involved in a murder case he was probing which could not be covered up.

The revelation shocked and enraged the Communist party official. He asked Wang to leave, saying he wanted to be alone and clear his mind. When Wang returned half an hour later, Bo asked him that the issue carried too much significance and he would seriously punish his wife.

Two or three days later, the Chongqing governor back flipped and shunted aside Wang in an apparent bid to quash the inquiry and protect his wife and career. Wang was demoted to the much less powerful role of vice mayor for education, culture and science. Wang Lijun was having the shock of his life. As it goes: “If you took away a cop’s uniform, you stole his life”.

Wang was not holy. Bo ruled Chongqing with an iron fist and many viewed Wang as his right-hand/hit man/attack dog. They committed crimes together under the guise of cleaning up mafias by torturing their gangsters and confiscating properties worth billions of yuan. Many considered Chongqing as a ‘cow boy’ government with Bo enjoying immense popularity among the poor masses. However, the central authorities in Beijing were very worried.

Wang feared that Bo, eager to preserve his reputation and chances for a spot in the next central leadership, could turn on him after central party investigators began probing Wang’s past. So the sacked police chief told Central investigators that Gu Kailai turned on a business accomplice because of economic interests and that she wanted to destroy him.

Wang, fearing persecution by Bo, drove 200 miles to seek asylum in the US consulate in Chengdu on 6 February. Wang presented documentary evidence involving his boss as he tried to negotiate a safe passage to the US.

After staying there for a day, he was persuaded by the Americans, who clearly did not wanted to annoy the Chinese, to hand himself over to central government officials. Wang was detained as soon as he left the US consulate on 7 Feb. His whereabouts are still unknown. Authorities say Wang could face treason charges.

kailai bo wang heywood
Chinese political scandal, murder case. Left-right: Gu Kailai, Bo Xilai, Neil Heywood, Wang Lijun.

Another shocking news emerged last month that Neil Heywood, a 41-year-old British businessman, a member of Bo’s inner circle, died in a suspicious manner on 14 November 2011 in a Chongqing hotel room.

Police said Heywood died of excessive alcohol-consumption, and his body was cremated immediately without an autopsy in the presence of a British official. But latest reports claim he was poisoned with potassium cyanide, a tiny dose of which can kill within minutes while giving the impression of a heart attack. Authorities believe Heywood may have been dead for nearly 36 hours when his body was discovered in the hotel room.

Gu Kailai, a beautiful and driven lawyer, had her own nicknames like the Jacqueline Kennedy of China, for her beauty and adding value to her husband in power; Hillary Clinton of China, for her superb legal brain; and Joan Collins, charming and manipulating wily actress.

The worst is that ‘Lady Macbeth’ suppressed her instinct toward compassion, motherhood, and fragility associated with femininity, in favour of ambition, ruthlessness, and the single-minded pursuit of power.

Gu became one of China’s most prominent lawyers after she started her law firm named ‘Kailai’. She was the first Chinese lawyer to successfully challenge and win a ruling in a US court. She wrote a popular book called “Winning a Lawsuit in the US”, marking her success.

Gu Kailai was everything the new, booming China wanted to be: wealthy, ambitious, respected and feared. She is a woman with a beautiful face and serpent’s heart. Bo and Gu Kalli are considered “Princelings” or “Red Aristocracy” as their fathers were Mao’s revolutionary colleagues. Powerful family links make such people particularly difficult to dislodge in any struggle.

Bo was seen until recently as one who might be promoted to the top-level Politburo Standing Committee. He believed he could one day become China’s paramount ruler.

Heywood’s family was told by the Chinese authorities that he had died of a heart attack, and that there would be no autopsy with his body swiftly cremated. Although Heywood’s Chinese wife, Wang LuLu, did not ask for an inquiry, members of the British community there pressed their embassy for a probe, insisting that Heywood was not a heavy drinker or a teetotaller.

Heywood’s death is seen as one of the biggest upheavals in Chinese politics since the Tiananmen Square crackdown on demonstrators in 1989. Britain announced it had made a strong request to the Chinese central government to re-examine and investigate his death fully, in light of fresh suspicions.

“We did ask the Chinese to hold an investigation,” British Prime Minster David Cameron said. “We are pleased they are now doing that and I stand ready to co-operate in any way we can. It is very important we get to the truth of what happened in this very disturbing case, this very tragic case,” he said.

China responded by promising to “take it forward”.

Neil Heywood came from a British middle-class family and was educated at Harrow, a private boarding school, and Warwick University. Arriving in China in the 1990s and studying Chinese in Beijing, he moved to the northeastern city of Dalian, where Bo was mayor from 1993 to 2001 and where Heywood met Wang LuLu who later became his wife. He started his career as an English tutor to students including Bo’s son Guagua and then moved to business.

The impeccably dressed Heywood, who drove a silver S-class Jaguar and imported classic Aston Martins for China’s new rich, wrote to Bo and offered his services as a consultant. He was quickly brought into the family fold, a foreigner who could help the internationally minded Bos to send their son to Britain for a public school education.

Heywood’s relationship with the family became close after he played a key role in organising a place for Bo’s son, Guagua, at Harrow, an exclusive British private school that usually requires entrants to be on a waiting list from birth, and helping to look after the son while he was there between 2001 and 2006.

Harrow charges fees of £7,345 a term. This comes in stark contrast to Bo’s salary being little more than £300 a month. When media questioned the affordability, the governor insisted that his son had won scholarships to attend Harrow and Oxford. But Guagua turned out to be a Ferrari driving spendthrift playboy who described himself as having a ‘strained relationship with books.’ His partying behavior caused enough concern to his parents that attracted the attention of higher authorities too.

Gu was said to be godmother to the Heywood’s 11-year-old daughter Olivia and seven-year-old son Peter. They both attended the Beijing branch of Dulwich College, an international school for expats and privileged Chinese children.

Heywood, on the other hand, became a “fixer” for the Bo family, playing a role in organising meetings between Bo and foreign officials and business people. He set up several companies, including one called Neil Heywood & Associates, some of which offered consulting services to foreign businesses trying to invest in Dalian and other parts of China.

Neil Heywood was helping Gu Kailai with her overseas financial dealings. Media reports suggest Heywood had told a friend that Gu handled much of Bo’s family business but had grown increasingly erratic after a corruption inquiry in 2007. At some point, reports say, Gu asked Heywood to divorce his Chinese wife and swear an oath of loyalty as she became convinced that someone in the family’s inner circle had betrayed her. Hell broke loose when he refused…

In late last year Gu asked the Briton to move a large sum of money abroad. Neil’s demand of a larger cut due to the size of transaction outraged the Chongqing governor’s wife. Gu accused him of being greedy and threatened him of dire consequences. Heywood told her that if she thought he was being too greedy, then he didn’t need to become involved and wouldn’t take a penny of the money. Heywood also countered by saying that he could expose ‘everything’. What was that ‘everything’?

People close to Heywood insist that since then, the British businessman expressed concern about his life as relations had dramatically deteriorated between him and Gu.

He had told a friend before his death that documents detailing overseas investments of Bo’s family were left with his lawyer in Britain as an “insurance policy”,  in case anything happened to him. Gu Kailai came to know this secret…

As Gu Kailai found that Heywood wouldn’t agree to go along and was even resisting her threats saying he could expose the deals that would be a major risk to Gu Kailai and Bo Xilai, Heywood was summoned on short notice to a meeting in Chongqing with representatives of the family of Bo Xilai.

There’s an Oriental proverb: “Do good, reap good; do evil, reap evil.”

Did handsome Heywood had a romantic affair with Gu Kailai?

(to be continued next week)

M.S. Shah Jahan is the CEO of Taipan Trading Company, a Gem and Precious Stone Consultancy Company based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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