When Gu Kailai was convicted of murdering a British businessman and given a suspended death sentence on Sunday, it marked the end of the latest sensational chapter in the drama surrounding her husband, Bo Xilai. Mr. Bo is seen now as having overreached, triggering his own fall just as he seemed set to reach the pinnacle of power in China, the nine-person Standing Committee of the Politburo. But the Bo family has experienced purge and humiliation before, only to improbably return to China’s political mainstream years later. Mark MacKinnon explores the cast of characters in a story tightly intertwined with the 63-year history of the People’s Republic
The patriarch of the clan, he grew up under the Qing Dynasty, born to parents so poor they had to drown a newborn baby because they couldn’t afford to feed another mouth. He joined the Communist Party at the age of 17, and became a key organizer as the communists fought against both occupying Japan and the rival Kuomintang.
Bo Yibo was made a vice-premier soon after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, only to be purged in 1966 as Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution took hold. The low point came when Mr. Bo was dragged before thousands in Beijing’s Workers Stadium, forced to wear an iron plaque detailing his supposed crimes.
He was rehabilitated after the death of Mao in 1976, and became a close confidant of Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor as "paramount leader." He opposed the political reform movement of the 1980s, and led the internal putsch that deposed then-party secretary Hu Yaobang. Three years later, he supported using force to crush the pro-democracy protests that erupted on Tiananmen Square after Mr. Hu’s death.
He died in 2007 at the age of 98.
Even before the rest of the world knew his name, he was one of China’s best-known politicians, a "princeling" (a term given to the sons and daughters of the Communist elite) with a populist touch rare in Chinese politics. The fourth of Bo Yibo’s seven children, he is believed to have served as a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution; some accounts suggest he may even have denounced his father at one point. As the family regained influence, Bo Xilai started a political career, rising through the ranks to eventually become party chief and mayor of the port of Dalian.
Many believed Bo Xilai’s rapid rise, and his family name, would earn him a spot on the Standing Committee of the Politburo as early as 2002, something his father lobbied for. However, he was passed over in favour of another "princeling," Xi Jinping, whose father, Xi Zhongxun, had also been purged and rehabilitated during the Cultural Revolution. (Xi Jinping is now poised to succeed President Hu Jintao.)
Bo Xilai’s assignment in 2007 to the southwestern city of Chongqing was initially seen as a form of banishment, but he instead used it as a base to build support for another run at the Standing Committee. He made himself the hero of the country’s leftists with his campaigns to reduce crime while reintroducing Mao-era slogans and songs. Before his long-time police chief entered a U.S. consulate, telling stories of corruption and murder, Mr. Bo was expected to finally join the Standing Committee this fall. Instead, he was purged from the party leadership. The 63-year-old’s political career seems over – for now, anyway.
The daughter of a prominent communist general, she has a law degree from prestigious Beijing University, where it’s believed she first met Bo Xilai.
Ms. Gu founded her own law firm and became one of China’s best-known lawyers. She claims to have been the first Chinese lawyer to win a case in a U.S. civil court when she successfully defended a Dalian company that had been sued for intellectual property violations.
As Mr. Bo rose in prominence, Ms. Gu, now 53, put her career on hold. The couple’s only son, Bo Guagua, told a newspaper in 2009 that his mother "lives like a hermit."
Protecting her son appeared to consume much of her time. According to testimony she gave during her seven-hour trial earlier this month, Ms. Gu used Neil Heywood, a 41-year-old Briton living with his family in Beijing, to ensure Bo Guagua got into an exclusive British boarding school and then later Oxford University. According to the official Xinhua record of her trial, Ms. Gu said the two had a falling out over money, during which Mr. Heywood threatened to harm her son. "I suffered a mental breakdown after learning that my son was in jeopardy," she told the court on Aug. 9.
Her confession has apparently spared Ms. Gu an immediate execution. Legal experts expect her sentence will be commuted to life in prison. It’s the same sentence given decades earlier to Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Zedong. Blamed after Mao’s death for the excesses of her husband’s rule, Ms. Jiang received a suspended death sentence in 1979. She was in prison until 1991, when she committed suicide.
The 24-year-old playboy son of Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai, in recent years his flamboyant lifestyle had undercut his father’s attempts to portray himself as a champion of the poor. Guagua rode around Beijing in flashy sports cars, and pictures of him partying abroad were widely circulated online. He recently graduated from Harvard University’s prestigious Kennedy School of Government.
Other than the occasional e-mail to journalists, Guagua has stayed out of the public eye since his family’s fall from grace. Most recently, he denied there was any business deal gone wrong between his mother and Mr. Heywood, casting doubt on the official version of what happened.
The British businessman died in November, 2011, but no suspicions were raised until Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun dramatically sought refuge inside the U.S. consulate in Chengdu three months later. Mr. Heywood, who lived in Beijing with his wife and two children, is believed to have served for years as an unofficial "fixer" to the Bo family, allegedly helping them move hundreds of millions dollars out of the country over the years. Then came his apparent falling out with Ms. Gu, who lured him last November to a Chongqing hotel where she says she got him drunk on wine and then slipped him cyanide.
Bo Xilai’s police chief and longtime right-hand man, he brought the scandal to light by fleeing into the U.S. consulate . He told American officials that he had taped Ms. Gu admitting to murdering Mr. Heywood, and asked for political asylum. The request was passed to Washington, but refused, and Mr. Wang was eventually convinced to leave the consulate .
Mr. Wang, who was notorious in Dalian and Chongqing for his use of torture and abuse of due process while carrying out Mr. Bo’s anti-crime campaigns, was demoted in early February, a sign he had fallen out with his longtime patron. Four days later, he fled into the U.S. consulate.
He is expected to soon face a trial of his own, likely on charges related to his "unauthorized" visit to the U.S. consulate. A treason conviction would likely come with a death sentence.
China’s vice-president and the anointed heir to President Hu Jintao. He and Bo Xilai have long been portrayed as "princeling" rivals.
Their fathers stood on the opposite side of some of the key political crises of post-Mao China. While Bo Yibo lead the conservative putsch in 1986, and supported the Tiananmen Square crackdown three years later, Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a lone dissenting voice among the Communist Party leadership in both instances.
Mr. Xi’s ascension to the Standing Committee of the Politburo in 2002 is seen as having come at the expense of Mr. Bo. The question many China-watchers are asking now is whether Mr. Xi – who is about to become the most powerful man in China – shares his father’s political views, or whether he harbours any sympathy for his fallen fellow princeling.