Not a month after the dismissal of Bo Xilai, a man destined for the very summit of China’s political hierarchy, the country is now facing political unrest for the first time since 1989.
When the death of British businessman Neil Heywood, found dead in his hotel in Chongqing last year, was initially attributed to alcohol poisoning it went unquestioned as a tragic mishap. That was until former police chief Wang Lijun entered the US Consulate seeking asylum in February, and passed on critical information regarding what he believed to be the murder of Heywood. In the past week the world has learnt that Britain has asked the Chinese government to reopen investigations around Heywood’s death.
It has since transpired that Mr. Wang handed over some very damning information regarding Heywood’s death, shedding new light on his relationship with Mr. Bo and his wife, Gu Kailai. The information implied that Ms. Gu was directly connected to the death.
Wang’s report seems to have suggested Gu suspected Heywood had taken money from Bo’s account, which he likely had access to. The two men had little or no professional dealings together, but Heywood had assisted Bo’s son in his acceptance to Harrow, where Heywood himself studied. Ms. Gu has since been named the leading suspect for Heywood’s murder. Heywood’s friends were confused by the previous cause given to his death, as he was not known to be a heavy drinker, and it is now though that he was poisoned.
So what are the implications for China, and why is this scandal being named as the biggest upheaval since the Tiananmen Square protests?
The government’s reaction to the situation has been critical. Given the once-in-a-decade handover of power to a new generation of leaders about to take place, the administration is already in a state of unease. Bo was widely expected to ascend to the Politburo, the Communist party’s nine-body standing committee. The support that the government have shown for the arrest of his wife, was documented in the cadre’s paper ‘The People’s Daily’. The publication publicly supported the action taken against the couple, revealing the corrupt and illegal behaviour of its most high-powered political actors. Mr. Bo and Mr. Wang both face investigation for their actions. However, ‘The People’s Daily’ has since moved to encourage a rally around the Chinese government and the highest political bodies in an attempt to strengthen the party. The actions of Bo and Gu have been recast as a ‘bump’ that has been overcome through the strength of the state.
The crisis is not quite averted, though. The Chinese citizens have taken to the Internet, and the blogging world has been set alight with commentary on the situation within the administration. The response of the party has been predictably hard-handed: writings on the situation have largely been removed, key-word searches targeting Heywood, Bo Xilai and all involved largely produce no results. Despite press-releases from the central government, there seems to be little allowance for the general public to comment themselves. One of the few independent publications, the ‘Bejing News’, called for the government to release regular information on the events to the public, in order to distil the outspoken bloggers. Threatening users of social networking sites who circulate discussion of these matters serves to illuminate the authority’s anxiety and motivate its opposition. It is a state of events that could have serious repercussions for the Chinese government.