BEIJING (AP) — Only a few people heard it, but when one of China’s most prominent politicians slapped his police chief across the face, it would end up reverberating far and wide. The smack unleashed tales of murder and conspiracy at the highest levels of the Communist Party — and eventually, the politician’s own undoing.
A day earlier, the chief had confronted Bo Xilai, the party boss of the megacity of Chongqing, with some unwelcome information: He had evidence Bo’s wife had killed a British businessman in China. Bo’s stinging rebuke sent the top cop fleeing into the arms of American officials, creating the Communist Party’s most embarrassing scandal in decades.
Now the final chapter in the saga is about to unfold: a closely orchestrated trial, opening Thursday, in which the 64-year-old Bo is virtually assured of being convicted of corruption and abuse of power.
Bo’s trial will seal the political demise of a charismatic figure who cultivated a following by mobilizing the masses and sending his critics to labor camps. His naked ambition might have led to his fall.
He had been a member of China’s 25-member Politburo, and had been considered a contender for one of the seven seats on the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Today, he is in many senses a nonentity; his own family has not seen him in 18 months.
“It’s dealing with a ghost, really. The guy has been absolutely annihilated,” said Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat in Beijing and China expert at the University of Sydney.
Bo’s ouster laid bare how he and other top officials reigned unfettered by the law in Chongqing, a sprawling city of 30 million people where skyscrapers have risen at the confluence of two rivers. The scandal also ruptured the Communist Party’s facade of unity, exposing divisions at the highest echelons.
Bo rode to nationwide fame by leading an anti-mafia crusade and mass sing-alongs of communist anthems in Chongqing, and by implementing populist policies that made him beloved with his region’s poor. But his publicity-seeking ways angered leaders who were wary of any revival of the personality cult, chaos and bloodshed of the Mao Zedong era.
The rising political star precipitated his downfall in January of 2012 by censuring his top aide, police chief Wang Lijun, and then stripping him of his powerful post.
Spurned by his influential patron and fearing for his life, Wang slipped out of the city by car a week later and fled to the U.S. consulate in neighboring Chengdu to seek asylum. He brought explosive allegations: murder by a city boss’s wife, a cover-up and other high-level machinations.
“It felt like something out of a spy thriller,” U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke later said in an interview with Newsweek.
The exact details of what Wang revealed remain unclear but an incomplete narrative rolled out by Chinese authorities in the months since sheds some light.
The Bo family was once — outwardly — a picture of success: a telegenic politician and his devoted wife, Gu Kailai, a corporate lawyer who gave up her job to help her husband’s ascent and raise their son. They nurtured a network of strong political, military and business connections aided by their pedigrees as the children of veteran revolutionaries.
But in recent years, the official story goes, Gu descended into anxiety and paranoia. She became troubled by a dispute with a British associate of the family, Neil Heywood, who allegedly had demanded a multimillion-dollar commission on a property venture and threatened her son’s life.
In November 2011, Gu lured Heywood to a secluded hilltop retreat in Chongqing where she got him drunk and then, with an aide’s help, poured cyanide into his mouth. Then she turned to Wang, who sent police officers to remove evidence, including hotel surveillance videos.
“It’s all gone up in smoke, flown on a crane to paradise,” the police chief told Gu after Heywood was declared dead by excessive drinking and his body was cremated.
Unknown to Gu, Wang had recorded a phone conversation in which she’d confessed to the crime. He also had secretly saved samples from Heywood’s heart and other evidence.
Left out of the official account was a surprising twist that was exposed in court testimony: The police chief had helped Gu plot the murder from the start, but backed away from its execution. Also unclear is why Wang brought the murder allegations to his boss, though reports suggested that Wang hoped Bo would shield him from an unrelated graft investigation.
His plan backfired, forcing him instead to flee to the U.S. consulate, prompting Chinese security vehicles to surround the building. Photos of the scene circulating on microblogs were the first public hints of trouble brewing. When Wang realized that asylum was not an option, he negotiated with Chinese officials for safe passage to Beijing.
The murder allegations were not yet publicly known, but Wang’s actions were considered a severe breach of party protocol.
Three weeks later, at Beijing’s annual national legislative sessions, Bo admitted lapses in judgment but defended himself and his anti-mafia campaign, which had come under fire for abuses of the legal process.
“I feel like I’ve failed in my supervision of my staff,” Bo said, referring to Wang, as he leaned back in a large armchair. “This incident is something we need to seriously reflect on and sum up.”
Though he looked tired, his eyes puffy, Bo exuded his signature self-confidence and charm. He smiled often as he held court in a room crowded with journalists asking pointed questions.
Raising his palm as if taking an oath, Bo deflected questions about whether he was jockeying for a top spot in China’s political transfer of power, then under way. He blasted reports that suggested his then-24-year-old son led a playboy lifestyle, accusing his critics of “pouring filth” on his family.
Bo insisted his true concern was China’s rich-poor gap. “If only a few people are rich, then we are capitalists. We have failed.”
Those were his last remarks in public.
Several days later, on March 14, 2012, then-outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao criticized Bo — without naming him — in a rare public rebuke of a party leader of that stature. Wen said Chongqing leaders “must seriously reflect on the Wang Lijun incident and learn lessons from it.” Wen also took a swipe at Bo’s Maoist reputation, saying China must guard against regressing to one of its most violent periods.
The next day, Bo was dismissed as Chongqing party boss.
At a labor camp in Chongqing, inmates cheered at the announcement on the evening news. “We all thought: He’s finally getting what he deserves,” said Fang Hong, a forestry official who had been sent to the camp for a year for posting a scatological ditty online that mocked Bo. He spent that year making Christmas lights for export to Germany.
Fang’s was no isolated case of extralegal abuse — dozens of people were locked up for various minor transgressions, said Fang, whose case was overturned by a court recently.
“It was a time of red terror,” he said in a recent interview. “The labor camps were overflowing with people.”
The murder allegations against Bo’s wife emerged after his dismissal. She has been convicted of murder and given a suspended death sentence that may be reduced to life in prison.
Bo was stripped of further posts, including on the powerful Politburo. He now faces charges of interfering with the murder investigation, as well as bribery and embezzlement, in a trial in the city of Jinan.
Bo Guagua, the couple’s son, said in a statement released to The New York Times that he has been denied contact with both parents for the past 18 months.
Bo Xilai’s trial is expected to be a short affair with a predetermined outcome: guilt. Analysts note that in China’s recent history of political purges, the fates of senior officials accused of corruption tend to be decided by backroom negotiations that have little to do with justice.
Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter at twitter.com/gillianwong