mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
To Murder and Corruption, Add Wiretapping

For decades, China’s rulers have successfully convinced foreigners to pay no attention to the men behind the curtain; now the Bo Xilai saga is tearing down that curtain completely. The latest bombshell comes from the New York Times, which has revealed that Bo ran an extensive wiretapping operation that included top Communist Party officials. Not even President Hu Jintao was safe from Bo’s prying ears. The Times dug up this news after talking to “nearly a dozen people with party ties.” Chongqing’s former police chief, Wang Lijun—the man responsible for setting in motion the chain of events that led to Bo’s undoing—apparently confirmed the wiretapping scheme to Beijing.

Until this latest revelation, many had assumed that Bo’s downfall was the result of his wife’s involvement in the murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman and “fixer” for for the Bo family who was allegedly poisoned in his Chongqing hotel room last November. And while Heywood’s death will remain the central narrative in the Party’s official account of Bo’s ouster, the wiretapping in particular is reported to have roused top officials. The murder merely provided a pretext for the apparatchiks who had been looking to bring down Bo for some time.

The case is revealing all kinds of things the leadership desperately wanted to keep hidden. Notes the Times:

To maintain control over society, leaders have embraced enhanced surveillance technology. But some have turned it on one another—repeating patterns of intrigue that go back to the beginnings of Communist rule.

“This society has bred mistrust and violence,” said Roderick MacFarquhar, a historian of Communist China’s elite-level machinations over the past half century. “Leaders know you have to watch your back because you never know who will put a knife in it.”

Despite the turmoil unleashed by the scandal, some China watchers think that the country may have averted an even more damaging crisis down the road. Bo was ruthless, charismatic and very popular in Chongqing. He was also paranoid, vain and hungry for a higher posting. Thankfully, those hopes have been dashed — unless the future holds new surprises. The past three months have exposed Bo’s Chongqing as a terrifying example of exactly what one possible future for China could look like.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “Leaders know you have to watch your back because you never know who will put a knife in it.”

    Groups of immoral and unethical people view a turned back as an invitation to stick a knife in it.

  • Mrs. Davis

    patterns of intrigue that go back to the beginnings of Communist rule.

    Might they go back even further?

  • Luke Lea

    “But some have turned it on one another—repeating patterns of intrigue that go back to the beginnings of Communist rule.”

    Check. Should be “that go back to the beginnings of the Ming and Quing Dynasties”

    I’ve been reading a lot of Chinese history lately. Turns out that this kind of corruption (nepotism, intrigue) has been built into the warp and woof of Chinese civilization since the beginning. It is the norm, the widely accepted norm, and except for rare interludes always has been.

    The issue, for us, is whether doing business which such an immense and immensely rewarding country will corrupt us as well? Is the money too big? Just one more reason to doubt the wisdom of present policy.

    Here are some good books, well written, fun to read:

    China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing

    The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China

    1587, a Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline

  • Lorenz Gude

    Please delete the above comment it belonged under the North Korea story. I will now post it there. Apologies.

  • Luke Lea

    Today’s PoliSci exam:

    Pick the description below (all from Wikipedia) which best describes China? Explain how the process of succession is supposed to occur.

    1. Absolute monarchy, a form of government where the monarch has the power to rule their land freely, with no laws or legally organized direct opposition in force

    2. Despotism is a form of government in which a single entity rules with absolute power.

    3. Totalitarianism is a political system where the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible.

    4. An autocracy is a system of government in which a supreme political power is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control (except perhaps for the implicit threat of coup d’état or mass insurrection).

    5. A junta is a government led by a committee of military leaders. The term derives from the Spanish language junta meaning committee or meeting, specifically a board of directors. Sometimes it becomes a military dictatorship.

    6. Oligarchy is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people could be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who pass their influence from one generation to the next.

    7. Plutocracy is rule by the wealthy, or power provided by wealth. The combination of both plutocracy and oligarchy is called plutarchy.

    8. Aristocracy is a form of government in which a few elite citizens rule.

    9. Theocracy is a form of government in which the official policy is to be governed by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided, or simply pursuant to the doctrine of a particular religious group or religion.

    10. Despotism is a form of government in which a single entity rules with absolute power. That entity may be an individual, as in an autocracy, or it may be a group,[1] as in an oligarchy. The word despotism means to “rule in the fashion of a despot” and does not necessarily require a singular “despot”, an individual.

    Bonus question: Is China likely to transition into a constitutional democracy based on human rights and the rule of law? How might it happen? What are the chances of a breakdown in law and order? A civil war? The re-emergence of warlords? (A warlord is a person with power who has both military and civil[1] control over a subnational area due to armed forces loyal to the warlord and not to a central authority.)

    How will the rest of the world be effected by what happens next?

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service