By Stephen McDonell: In today’s China the brutal and sometimes violent machinations of party politics are usually played out behind the scenes, but the Communist Party is now in the grip of a factional battle the likes of which hasn’t been seen for decades, and it’s dramatically public. It’s not just an ideological struggle but a tale of espionage, betrayal, torture and even murder – and whoever wins will determine the destiny of 1.5 billion people. China correspondent Stephen McDonnell has the story.
STEPHEN MCDONNELL, REPORTER: Chongqing is a sprawling metropolis in western China. The would-be launching pad for development in the country’s underprivileged inland. It’s February 6th in this knock-about city and the local police chief is on the run. He possibly fears for his life, definitely fears for his liberty. Armed with high-level secret knowledge, he decides to try for political asylum from the Americans. His actions on this day will bring down a leader, potentially destroy a development model for the whole country and smash open Chinese politics in a way not seen for decades. It will be a mighty fall for a one-time Communist Party star.
DAVID KELLY, CHINA ANALYST, “CHINA POLICY”: He was evidently a man of many methods.
ZHOU LITAI, LAWYER, ZHOU LITAI LAW FIRM (translation): He became famous because he cracked down on the Mafia. He’s also a national hero who’s still alive.
STEPHEN MCDONNELL: They called Wang Lijun “RoboCop” and “Crazy Wang” for his high-profile crime-busting efforts in Chongqing. In just 10 months, so-called “anti-Mafia trials” involved 4,781 arrests, including crime bosses, allegedly corrupt police and local party officials. At least 13 people were executed. For this he earned the admiration of many, including lawyer Zhou Litai, who specialises in helping poor workers.
ZHOU LITAI (translation): A few years ago you could see people taking drugs, robberies or killing people on the streets. You can’t see them in Chongqing now.
STEPHEN MCDONNELL: But it was Wang Lijun’s boss, local party secretary, Bo Xilai, who was propelled to national prominence for ordering the crackdown. What’s more, Bo Xilai used crime prevention as a centrepiece for his very own political vision.
BO XILAI, FORMER CHONGQING COMMUNIST PARTY SECRETARY: As to whether we’re satisfy with the Mafia crackdown, we should let the people be the judge.
STEPHEN MCDONNELL: Bo Xilai developed the so-called “Chongqing Model”, with red songs on television and cheap housing for the poor. Millions of underprivileged people lapped it up, and Bo Xilai appeared headed for China’s cabinet, the Politburo Standing Committee. Yet by promoting his “lift up the poor” model, he was also seaing the seeds of his downfall.
DAVID KELLY: When a distant province has a governor who… or a boss who does well, the centre starts to worry that he’s doing too well, especially as he promoted the model as something to be applied widely in the country.
STEPHEN MCDONNELL: This city and its model became the great hope for those who want to retain the Communist Party at the centre of everything. Elsewhere, officials have been permitting liberal reforms like grassroots elections, but in Chongqing the party was to deliver low cost housing, songs from the good old days on the telly and safer streets. On top of all this, as you can see there’s been considerable economic development. So understandably, many rallied behind the city’s charismatic leader, who even knew how to win over the business community. But there was a darker side to the Chongqing model, which took some time to come to light.
LI ZHUANG, FORMER LAWYER (translation): The worst torture is when they lock your hands with handcuffs and hang you from the ceiling above a table with only your toes table to touch it.
STEPHEN MCDONNELL: Li Zhuang is a lawyer who represented a crime boss, who he says had his confession extracted by torture.
LI ZHUANG (translation): The way my client was hung, he was urinating and defecating without control, then they let him down and made him pick up his excrement with his hands and wiped the floor with his shorts. Then he was hung up again naked.
STEPHEN MCDONNELL: Apart from beatings, Li Zhuang says thousands of suspects faced sleep and food deprivation for days on end to extract statements. Then he too was picked up, tortured, accused of fabricating evidence and imprisoned for a year and a half. Li Zhuang says that these were trumped-up charges to stop him working and scare away other lawyers. And the allegations get worse.
Now it’s emerged that a secretive British businessman named Neil Heywood may have been murdered – and in a sensational development this week, police arrested Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, and another worker as prime suspects in the case.
This is a very strange aspect of the story. British man Neil Heywood was a close confidant of Bo Xilai’s family. Exactly what he did for them we don’t really know, but he was found dead in a hotel room here in Chongqing, officially from over-drinking. His body was hastily cremated, and some believe that he was actually murdered when it emerged that he used to do work for a private intelligence-gathering firm that hired former agents from Britain’s MI5 and MI6. The conclusion that has been drawn is he has been killed for spying on Bo Xilai.
And there’s something more. It’s thought that details about the strange death of Neil Heywood was what Wang Lijun wanted to pass on to United States diplomats in exchange for getting outs of China – for example, that the British businessman had been in a worsening commercial dispute with Bo Xilai’s family. Two months ago the police chief drove out of Chongqing, heading for the US consulate 300 kilometres away in Chengdu. He’d been accused of corruption himself, and knew he could go down hard – possibly even the death penalty.
The US wouldn’t give protection to a man accused of torturing people. He left Chongqing, and would end up in the hands of the Chinese state security police, who’d take him to Beijing. He may never return to the city he helped transform.
With his right-hand man in custody and his enemies circling, Bo Xilai put on a brave face at the recent National People’s Congress, the last time he’s been seen in public.
BO XILAI, FORMER CHONGQING COMMUNIST PARTY SECRETARY: After this problem came out I felt heart-broken. I felt like I’d put my trust in the wrong person.
STEPHEN MCDONNELL: This week he was stood down from all remaining posts, awaiting investigation. His wife is in deeper water. If she’s found guilty of murdering Neil Heywood, she possibly faces the death penalty. But the Chongqing model still has its advocates here, and the so-called “liberals” have not necessarily won. What this does all mean though, is that Bo Xilai’s enemies have the momentum now to put more of their people in the new cabinet later this year – and that battle is continuing away from ordinary people’s eyes.
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