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The Saga of Bo Xilai

China’s Biggest Political Drama since Tiananmen Square

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Bo Xilai

China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai attends the closing session of the National Peoples Congress at The Great Hall Of The People March 14, 2012 in Beijing, China.

Lintao Zhang / Getty Images

Facts more engrossing than fiction, rumors, conspiracy theories, and gossip have been swirling around the Internet since February as China’s biggest political drama in over two decades has unfolded before the public’s eye. Learn about the major players in the drama, the timeline of events, and why the world has become captivated with Bo Xilai’s fall from grace.

Who Are the Major Players?

Bo Xilai (薄熙來):

Bo Xilai, 62, was the mayor and Communist Party chief of Chongqing, a large city in southwest China, and a member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee. Bo was famous for his success at getting rid of gangs and sent many gangsters to jail during his tenure. His crusade against crime was set against the background of Maoist revolutionary rhetoric and songs.

The controversial politician is a ‘princeling’ who was expected to move up the ranks in China’s Communist Party when the Party turns over power to the next generation of leaders in late 2012. Despite rounding up many high profile criminals, Bo allegedly tortured suspects, denied suspects proper trials, and used his anti-corruption campaign to persecute political rivals and personal foes.

Since the scandal broke, Bo has hidden from sight and is under investigation for “serious breaches of (Communist) party discipline.”

Wang Lijun (王立軍):

Wang Lijun was the vice-mayor and public security chief of Chongqing from 2009 to 2011. Wang’s boss was Bo Xilai. It is reported that Wang had a falling out with Bo after confronting him with his suspicions that Bo’s wife had a role in British businessman Neil Heywood’s death in November 2011.

Neil Heywood:

Neil Heywood, 41, was a British businessman with ties to Bo Xilai’s family for over a decade. He was found dead in November 2011 at a two-story villa in Chongqing’s Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel that costs a purported $700 a night. Chinese authorities reported that he died of alcohol poisoning and his body was quickly cremated without an autopsy.

Since his death, media reports say Heywood had been rumored to have worked for Hakluyt & Company, a consultancy firm co-founded by a former officer in Britain's MI6 intelligence service, but this connection has not been officially confirmed.

Gu Kailai (谷開來):

Gu Kailai, Bo Xilai’s wife, is suspected of playing a role in Heywood’s death. It has been reported that Gu and Heywood had “economic conflicts.” Media reports have speculated the “economic conflicts” stemmed from an argument the two had over how much of a cut Heywood would get from transferring a large amount of the Bo family’s money from China. Gu was allegedly surprised at the amount Heywood demanded. Gu has been detained by authorities while Heywood’s death is being investigated.

Bo Guagua (薄瓜瓜):

Bo Guagua, 24, is the son of Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai. He is studying at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and is expected to graduate in spring 2013. His whereabouts and daily activities have become fodder for the media.

What Are the Key Events that Have Led to Bo Xilai’s Fall from Grace?

The following is a brief timeline of events:

November 15, 2011: British businessman Neil Heywood’s body is discovered in a two-story villa in Chongqing’s Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel that is purported to cost $700 a night.. Chinese authorities later cremate the body without an autopsy and declare Heywood died of alcohol poisoning.

January 28, 2012: Wang Lijun confronts Bo Xilai about his wife Gu Kailai’s suspected role in British businessman Neil Heywood’s death. Enraged, Bo reportedly slaps Wang in the face and calls him a “dog” during the confrontation, according to a spring article in Hong Kong magazine Yazhou Zhoukanas reported in the Want China Times.

February 2, 2012: Wang Lijun is stripped of his official positions by Bo Xilai. The public is told Wang is “on leave” due to his health.

February 6, 2012: Wang Lijun, fearing for his safety, goes to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, where he spends 36 hours revealing details of Heywood’s death and seeking political asylum, according to the Want China Times.

February 8, 2012: After his visit to the U.S. Consulate, Wang Lijun is escorted by Chinese authorities to Beijing, according to CNN.

March 14, 2012: Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) says Chongqing authorities need to reflect and learn from the “Wang Lijun incident. Bo Xilai and 38 others are reportedly arrested and detained in Hebei Province.

March 15, 2012: Bo Xilai is removed as Party Chief of Chongqing.

April 10, 2012: Authorities announce Gu Kailai, along with family aide Zhang Xiaojun, is being investigated in the murder of Neil Heywood.

April 10, 2012: Bo Xilai is suspended from the Communist Party’s Central Committee. "’Comrade Bo Xilai is suspected of being involved in serious disciplinary violations,’ said the Chinese news agency Xinhua,” according to CNN.

Why Is the Story of Bo Xilai Important?

As China prepares for a transition of its leadership in October 2012, the Bo Xilai case has revealed an internal power struggle. Factions within the Politburo Standing Committee have been trying to garner support for their chosen successors for some time. The issue of how to handle the Bo Xilai case – internally or in a court of law – has reportedly divided the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee in nearly the same way as the committee had been divided over whom should take over the presidency and gain membership in the Politburo before the Bo scandal erupted.

Jiang Zemin and others who are reportedly critical of the current leadership favored Princelings like Bo Xilai to take over while Chinese President Hu Jintao’s faction favors the Youth Faction. It is expected Xi Jinping will be China’s next president. Bo’s removal from the 25-member Politburo and the 200-member Central Committee is expected to help garner support for the Youth League.

As the political power struggle continues and the investigation into Heywood’s death continues, the rumor mill has worked overtime. From major events leading to Bo Xilai’s fall from grace, such as Wang Lijun’s visit to the U.S. Consulate, to stories about Bo’s son from his first marriage, Li Wangzhi, who studied law at Columbia University, have captured the attention of the world.

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