As China’s biggest political scandal in decades came to its unsurprising conclusion – with a court dismissing Bo Xilai’s final appeal and upholding the former Communist Party star’s sentence of life in prison – the red-roofed villa that was central to his downfall sat empty, wasting its idyllic view of the Mediterranean coast.
The silence hanging over No. 7 Boulevard des Pins on the French Riviera speaks to the gutted ambitions of a man whose plummet from power mesmerized China for the past year and embarrassed the ruling elite as never before. Mr. Bo, who was convicted of three charges, including bribe-taking related to the ownership of the villa, went to jail China’s most charismatic and controversial politician, factors many believe turned the Communist Party apparatus against him. He was also admired abroad, openly courted by corporate Canada and successive Canadian governments.
Until his downfall last year – sparked by his wife’s admission that she murdered British businessman Neil Heywood – Mr. Bo was counted as a friend by Montreal’s powerful Desmarais family, which cultivated the Bo family for decades and saw its businesses in China grow as Mr. Bo rose in power. Canadian politicians also sought him out: Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former prime minister Jean Chrétien were among the last high-profile foreign visitors to Chongqing, the southwestern Chinese city Mr. Bo governed until his arrest on corruption charges.
Mr. Bo was seen as Canada’s closest ally in China’s power structure, a relationship that was expected to bear even more fruit if – as many had expected – he rose to the very top, the seven-man Standing Committee of the Politburo. With his pro-business policies and command of English, he looked to some like a reformer to whom Canada could attach its China policy.
“We sort of hunger for a Chinese leader who is open and easy to communicate with,” said David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China who said he’d met Mr. Bo repeatedly over the past two decades and was one of those “who believed in him as a reformer.”
“Over his career, [Mr. Bo] met a lot of Canadians – he was the most Canadian-friendly of all [the senior Communist Party leadership],” Mr. Mulroney said.
Sergio Marchi, who was a minister of international trade under Mr. Chrétien before serving as president of the Canada China Business Council, personally met with Mr. Bo eight or nine times. He defended Mr. Bo as “a friend of Canada.” Many in the Canadian business and political establishment “were genuinely cheering” for Mr. Bo to achieve high political office in China, he said.
That seems impossible now. Mr. Bo’s appeal of his September conviction was dismissed by the Shandong Provincial Higher People’s Court in just an hour on Friday. State television showed images of Mr. Bo standing in court, hands cuffed before him, bearing a wry smile.
Ties between Mr. Bo and corporate Canada are rooted in the long friendship between the Bo and Desmarais clans, which stretches back to the 1970s, when Mr. Bo’s father, vice-premier Bo Yibo, visited family scion Paul Desmarais Sr. on his way to Washington to help prepare for Richard Nixon’s breakthrough trip to China.
There’s no evidence that the Desmarais family or Power Corporation, the massive holding firm they control, profited directly from their friendship with the Bo family, although it clearly gave them high-level access to decision-makers.
But the relationship appears to have been a fruitful one. A 1996 Team Canada trade mission to the coastal city of Dalian while Mr. Bo was mayor there yielded no local deals for Canadian companies, but the following year France’s massive Total SA oil major – in which the Desmarais family is the largest known shareholder – signed a deal to up its stake in China’s largest oil refinery, West Pacific Petrochemical Corp., to 22.4 per cent. The refinery is located on an island just off Dalian.