On the day that former Chongqing boss Bo Xilai was removed from all his Chinese Communist Party posts and his wife announced to be a murder suspect, a mob of at least 10,000 people took over the streets of one of the municipality’s distant districts.
The crowds hurled rocks at security officers and smashed or set fire to more than a dozen police cars before reinforcements arrived to lock things down.
The chaos was not sparked by Bo’s dismissal. Instead, public anger had exploded about reductions in medical insurance and social security after the merger of two of Chongqing’s districts.
The rioting of April 10 and 11, however, provided a stark reminder of the peril the Communist Party confronts as the scandal surrounding Bo grows ever deeper.
Many Chinese already have little or no trust in local officials and their allies, who they often believe are corrupt, venal and, at times, murderous. Should they come to believe the same about national figures, then the careful dance that takes place whenever there is unrest in China _ people pinning hopes on intervention from the central government _ could lose its footing.
In a nation known for reliance on police state tactics, it’s difficult to predict what might follow.
“If the common people reported the problems to the local government it would have been useless,” said a woman surnamed Zeng, 38, who runs a business at the south edge of the district where the tumult occurred last week. “Causing a disturbance, on some level, was effective.”
The townspeople wanted Chongqing officials to overrule their local counterparts and adjust the benefits. That’s apparently what happened when Mayor Huang Qifan rushed to the scene.
Viewed from the outside, China is a rising economic juggernaut poised for greatness. At home, however, it has struggled to contain the corrosive effects of corruption and abuse of power by officials and their allies. Although hundreds of millions of Chinese were lifted from extreme poverty in the past three decades of growth managed by the Communist Party, public resentment has grown over the widening gap in wealth and privilege.
The story of Bo and his family threatens to feed that dissatisfaction, suggesting an elite increasingly removed from those it governs, a Mafia-like clutch of political families who’ve enriched themselves through corruption.
Both Bo and his wife, Gu Kailai, are the offspring of Communist Party aristocracy. Bo, 62, is the son of a renowned party elder and Gu, 53, the daughter of a famous general. Until recently, Bo was considered a likely candidate for one of nine seats on the Politburo Standing Committee, the apogee of power in China.
Far from the selfless sacrifice for the people that party propaganda trumpets about its leaders, the story that has emerged about Bo and Gu in the past several weeks describes a palace court in danger of careening out of control. The particulars would be familiar to anyone who’s come in contact with the way some of China’s villages and towns are run.
The official information on the allegations against the pair is slender. State media reported April 10 that Gu, now in custody, took part in the "intentional homicide" in November of a British businessman. The government reported the two “had conflict over economic interests, which had been intensified.”
The rest has emerged from a variety of online rumors and news items that have pushed the tale to grotesque proportions.
Some of the leaks seem to have been allowed to linger by Chinese officials; a tricky balance of seeking to smear Bo while maintaining that the allegations apply to him only, not those in similar positions of authority.
They include suggestions that businessman Neil Heywood, 41, may have argued with Gu for a larger cut of money he was allegedly trafficking out of the country for her, and perhaps asserted he would otherwise expose the scheme.
The Gu family has used its connections to great advantage: one Bloomberg News analysis found that the business interests of Gu’s sisters are worth at least $126 million.
There are also reports that Gu, accompanied by police, strong-armed Heywood’s Chinese widow after his death into agreeing to a quick autopsy and public acceptance of heart attack as the cause.
Tales about Bo and Gu’s son, Bo Guagua, paint a picture of wealthy profligacy. He attended the Harrow School, one of Britain’s most exclusive boarding schools, where the annual tuition is just under $50,000. He moved on to Oxford University and now, Harvard. Embarrassing photographs of Bo Guagua have circulated on the Chinese Internet for years; one shows him bare-chested at a party, another with his shirt unbuttoned and both arms around women. While Bo Xilai has said his son attended the expensive schools on scholarship, and bitterly denied reports that he drove a Ferrari, many Chinese assume the money for the education and the cars sprang from corruption.
The official description of the charges against Bo himself have been limited to “serious discipline violations.” But in the days since, public accusations have centered on Bo’s purported use of a crackdown on crime and corruption to settle scores with his rivals and take over their businesses. His former police chief fled to a U.S. consulate in February, and possibly sought asylum, the act that began Bo’s political undoing and his ouster as Chongqing party head in March. Bo apparently removed the police chief, Wang Lijun, from his job after the two argued about an investigation of Heywood’s death and Gu’s possible role.
The government is seeking to cast the case against Bo as proof that no one is above the law, but there’s acknowledgement that the case holds risks.
“At a time of profound changes in global, national and intra-party conditions, the (Communist Party) is facing long-term tests in governing the country, in reform and opening up and in developing China’s market economy, as well as tests from the external environment,” said an unsigned editorial distributed by Xinhua on Tuesday. “The party is also being confronted with the danger of a slackened spirit, incompetence, divorced relations from the people, inactivity and corruption.”
Those interviewed in the area where the riots broke out, known as Wansheng, didn’t bring up the Bo debacle. But even as many affirmed their faith in Beijing, they spoke of disappointment and frustration with officials.
“There is a very complicated and big problem now _ the central government has these policies, but when it comes to the lower level of governments, things change,” said a man surnamed Zhang, a 45-year-old restaurant owner in Wansheng, which sits about 65 miles south of Chongqing’s city center.
“Some officials are selfish, they look out only for their own interests,” he said, perched in front of a plate of fried peanuts and a small plastic cup into which he poured Shancheng beer. “These were very simple matters and the people should have been able to sit down with the government and communicate about them. But because the officials weren’t able to reach that step, the disturbance happened last week.”
Liao Yuanhe, regarded as a top expert in Chongqing on the subject of urbanization, said in a recent interview that some conflicts are to be expected when governing a place like Chongqing. The municipality’s population of more than 30 million is divided between both urban and rural areas in a swath of land roughly the size of South Carolina.
“The government’s understanding and feelings for the common people’s needs, and the common people’s understanding and support of the government’s work, plays the decisive role in building a harmonious relationship between the government and the masses,” said Liao, 62, an economics professor at a local university and former vice president of Chongqing’s Academy of Social Sciences, a top government research center.
That’s party-speak for: The potential for unrest can be measured by the distance between leaders and their subjects.
This past week, notices from the Chongqing public security bureau were plastered on one wall after another in Wansheng, which was absorbed by a neighboring district in December. They gave a long list of infractions that would meet with punishment, including disrupting traffic, confusing the public with rumors, participating in illegal rallies and transmitting slogans by cellphone texts or Internet messages. Guilty parties should turn themselves in or bear serious consequences, the signs said.
At a shop close to a main square, where police vans were still parked along the side of the road, a group of locals looked up nervously when asked why there hadn’t been an initial political solution to their grievances.
One middle-aged man in an olive blazer stood up to leave the shop and, as he passed a reporter, said, “The Chinese government is the most corrupted ” He did not finish the sentence.
A woman behind the counter said that it might be better for the reporter to leave.
“If the police come they will hold me responsible for having you here,” she said. She, like the others, did not give her name.
Another, younger man, sitting on a red stool, asked the room, with scorn in his voice, “Is it useful to write letters in the world of the Communist Party?”
People got quiet. Soon, the shop was empty.