Bo Xilai Controversy: U.K. Asks China to Investigate Death of Briton Linked to Ousted Politician

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Chongqing's Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai attends a National People's Congress session at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 9, 2012, less than a week before he was removed from his post

If there is one truth that has accompanied the downfall of Bo Xilai, the prominent Chinese official who was removed from his post on March 15, it is that every revelation prompts more questions. The story is far from over, and this year’s leadership transition process, which the Chinese Communist Party hopes to present as smooth and orderly, is likely to be laden with surprises and intrigue. That much could certainly be gathered from the latest development, reported Monday by the Wall Street Journal, that the U.K. has asked China to investigate last year’s death of a British businessman who had ties to Bo. The newspaper reported that Neil Heywood was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room in November, and local authorities said he died of “excessive alcohol consumption” and quickly cremated his body. But friends said he didn’t drink, raising questions. Former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun reported his suspicions about Heywood’s death to Bo, triggering a fallout with his boss, the Journal reported. The paper also said that Wang had claimed Heywood was involved in a business dispute with Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai.

In early February Wang made an overnight visit to the U.S. consulate in the city of Chengdu, about 200 miles (320 km) from his base in Chongqing, setting off widespread speculation about his relationship with Bo. As Chongqing’s Communist Party secretary, Bo had enjoyed widespread popularity thanks to an aggressive crackdown on organized crime, which Wang led; a campaign of celebrating Mao-era nostalgia; and an emphasis on social services to help ease resentment fueled by China’s growing gap between rich and poor. Bo was seen as a contender for the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest governing body, when it is reshuffled this fall. But the scandal that was exposed by Wang’s consulate visit has ruined that possibility. Wang has been removed from his Chongqing posts and is now under investigation. The government hasn’t revealed anything more about Bo’s fate since it was announced that he was being replaced as Chongqing’s party boss. Bo’s removal came one day after he was publicly criticized by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who linked Bo’s campaigns in Chongqing with the Cultural Revolution, the 1966–76 period of extreme political violence.

(MORE: What the Fall of Chongqing’s Party Boss Says About Chinese Politics)

If Bo clashed with Wen, his superior, over matters of political style, it seems he clashed with his deputy Wang over police business. The Los Angeles Times reported on a video recording purportedly of an official explanation to Chongqing officials over why Bo was sacked. The recording says Wang was worried for his own safety after he told Bo about a police investigation into some of Bo’s family members. Bo had Wang removed from his post as public-security chief on Feb. 1, less than a week before his visit to the U.S. consulate. The recording says that Wang went to the consulate to request asylum. He was detained by Chinese state security officers after he left the consulate on Feb. 7.

Since Bo’s March 15 dismissal, the Chinese Internet has pulsed with rumors of even greater political upheaval. Censors have been slow to remove speculation from popular sites such as Sina Weibo, the microblog service, and users have been quick to come up with workarounds for banned terms. Last week some Weibo users reported an increased security presence on Chang’an Avenue, the central Beijing street that passes Tiananmen Square and the central government’s Zhongnanhai compound. In some overseas Chinese press reports, particularly in outlets associated with the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, those rumors were inflated into speculative and unconvincing reports of a coup. The chief victim was purported to be Zhou Yongkang, China’s security chief and a Standing Committee member. Zhou appeared on state television Friday evening meeting a delegation from Indonesia, an appearance that refuted the rumors of his demise.

(MORE: China’s Dark City: Behind Chongqing’s Crime Crackdown)

But the speculation is certain to continue. Official information on Bo’s fate has been limited, and early statements — like Chongqing’s initial comment that Wang was receiving “vacation-style treatment” or Bo’s own claim that he wasn’t under investigation — have later proved incorrect. “The extent of the rumors is surprising,” says Joseph Cheng, a professor of Chinese politics at City University of Hong Kong. “These kind of suggestions of coups and so on, it really exposes the insecurity on the part of the elite and the uncertainty beneath what had once appeared to be a rather ordinary leadership-succession process.”

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