On Sept. 29, two days after his father was booted from China’s Communist Party and accused of a litany of transgressions — ranging from violating “party discipline” and “major responsibility” in the November 2011 murder of British business consultant Neil Heywood to receiving “huge bribes” and maintaining “improper sexual relationships with a number of women” — Bo Xilai’s son Bo Guagua released a statement defending the man whose downfall has electrified the Chinese political scene. Once considered a candidate to reach the most rarefied halls of power in China, Bo was described by his son as “upright in his beliefs and devoted to duty.” The younger Bo, 24, who earlier this year graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and still lives abroad, went on: “Personally, it is hard for me to believe the allegations that were announced against my father, because they contradict everything I have come to know about him throughout my life.”
So here’s a question that points to some uncomfortable family dynamics: Why did Bo Guagua not issue a statement when his mother Gu Kailai was handed a suspended death sentence in late August for Heywood’s murder? Does the son’s defense of his father, who was most recently party secretary of the megacity of Chongqing, provide hints that Bo père will be fighting the allegations in a way that his wife did not when she admitted to her crimes at her sentencing? Xinhua, the state-run Chinese news agency, has reported that Gu was spurred into ending Heywood’s life because the British consultant, who supposedly helped shepherd Guagua into top British school Harrow, had made threats against her only son. Given that we are led to believe that Gu killed to defend her son, why didn’t he speak up on her behalf to explain how her parental loyalty had gone so very awry?
Bo Guagua has spent much of his life abroad, first at elite boarding schools in England, then at Oxford and Harvard. His lifestyle, complete with luxury cars, raucous parties and all those fancy Western schools, bespoke a privilege at odds with his father’s embrace of Maoist-style politics. How, wondered Bo’s detractors, could a government official with a relatively meager state salary afford such trappings for his son, especially since his high-power lawyer wife supposedly left her job years ago? The abuse of power and corruption charges now flung at Bo seem to answer that question, although it’s not as if other top Chinese leaders don’t have lavish lifestyles secured for their progeny.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the laundry list of accusations hurled at Bo was that he collected a stable of mistresses — nothing illegal in and of itself and a weakness surely shared by many other members of the Communist ruling class. In his father’s defense, Guagua sidestepped the mistress issue, a predilection so commonplace in today’s China as to make the powerful Chinese man who doesn’t have an extracurricular relationship feel like an anomaly. “He has always taught me to be my own person,” wrote Guagua, of his father, “and to have concern for causes greater than ourselves.”
Guagua’s online defense came as Bo’s supporters, who advocate a return to Maoist policies as China’s best route in these economically uncertain times, rallied around the man once considered China’s most charismatic politician. Far from seeing the charges against Bo as the real reason for his removal, they have argued that the scandal was politically motivated by opponents of his leftist revival, which included mass singing of patriotic ditties and sending officials to the countryside to burnish their socialist credentials.
Bo’s political defenders haven’t been the only ones taking to the Internet. Late last month, a top Chinese forensic analyst questioned the official cause of Heywood’s death, which was attributed to cyanide poisoning. (The initial cause of death, before the Briton’s death was deemed murder, had been alcohol poisoning.) The post on Sina Weibo, China’s top microblogging site, was soon purged by Chinese censors. It said that death by cyanide can leave clues that should have alerted a competent forensic pathologist, including a reddish tinge to the corpse and unusually crimson blood. (Heywood’s body was quickly cremated after the initial alcohol-poisoning verdict.) As Bo’s trial nears, plenty of questions remain, and Guagua will no doubt have other opportunities to defend his fallen father.