The scandal surrounding Chinese princeling politician Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai is just 'business as usual,' says political commentator Willy Lam.
Willy Lam is an internationally acclaimed journalist and editor from Hong Kong and political commentator on Chinese politics.
DW: In China it is common practice to fight political enemies with corruption charges. But murder is a very different category. So is the sacking of Bo Xilai still intrigue or the result of serious crimes?
Willy Lam: I think what is certain is that this involvement of Bo Xilai's wife, Gu Kailai, in the suspected murder of this British businessman Neil Haywood has given Chinese authorities a good excuse to expose the wrongdoings of Bo Xilai. It is quite certain that both Bo and Gu are also under investigation for corruption and other economic crimes. However, I think, in the eyes of the Chinese public, if they can convict Gu and perhaps even Bo of involvement in this murder, it will be more convincing. And if they were to press corruption charges, then many other interested parties and also individuals might be exposed. So I think for the Chinese authorities it is a lot more convenient politically to use this murder charge as a weapon against Bo and Gu.
But what will be the effect of this scandal on the ordinary Chinese citizen? After all Bo Xilai was visited in Chongqing by 6 of the 9 members of the Politburo Standing Committee?
I think most members of the Chinese public, in particular the intellectuals, regard this as a classic power struggle, in this case, the struggle between the Communist Youth League faction led by President Hu Jintao and the so-called "gang of princelings" headed by people like vice-president Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai. Power struggles between factions has always been going on in China. It is just that now we are very close to the 18th Party Congress, so internal divisions and factional intrigue have now exploded. We have to remember there have been similar events before. One year before the 17th Party Congress in 2007 there was also a ferocious power struggle between Hu Jintao on one end and the Shanghai party secretary and politburo member Cheng Liangyu on the other, which ended with the imprisonment Chen. So in a sense, the Bo affair is a repeat performance of what happened in 2006 and 2007.
How will this affect the upcoming leadership succession?
The top leadership is fairly anxious to resolve the Bo affair as soon as possible. They don't want it to hang over the Party Congress. They want to present a facade of unity and stability for both the party members and the outside world. And perhaps they will succeed. I don't anticipate any more scandals after this. And I think it is in the interest of al the different political factions to put together a facade of unity. This is good for everybody and I think we will understand the factional horse trading and intrigue only after the final composition of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) is announced.
It seems that Wen Jiabao wants to leave his political posts and leave behind a kind of legacy as a political reformer. (The question is) the sacking of Bo Xilai, what does it mean for his reform drive - if it really is a serious reform drive?
Unfortunately there is no possibility for the political reform advocated by Wen to be implemented. So what we are seeing, unfortunately, is that this is actually business as usual: The return of usual party intrigue, back-stabbing and mud-slinging, the return of scandals, corruption cases and now even murder to implicate opponents. So nothing has changed. Chinese politics remains in a sense highly determined by factional intrigue and personality. We don't see the rule of law. This morning the People's Daily came out with a story saying that the prosecution of Bo and his wife shows that China is making progress with the rule of law. But actually, what counts is still the rule of personality. So what we have been witnessing is a return of almost Mao-style politics.
Is anything known about the economic interests that Gu Kailai and Neil Heywood have fallen out over?
When Wang Lijun, the former head of police in Chongqing, went into the US consulate in Chengdu in an effort to seek political asylum, he apparently told many details about the case to the Americans. However, both the American and the Chinese governments have publicly disclosed very little details concerning the business dispute between Heywood and Gu. So I think we can only draw our own conclusions. Heywood had been a family friend for many years, at least 10, 20 years. I think apart from business interest, there might have been some other reason behind the strange falling out. But I am afraid that until either the Chinese or the American governments are willing to divulge the details, it is very difficult to find out. There is also the theory that Bo himself was also involved in the dispute with Heywood. Perhaps when the trial takes place, the Chinese government might be willing to reveal more details.
You just mentioned Wang Lijun. What is your guess: What will happen to the former police chief of Chongqing?
Wang has been charged with treason, which is a very serious matter in China. So he will almost definitely be committed and be given a very heavy jail term of over ten years. Bo and his wife have also been charged with serious offenses, but because of Bo's elevated status as a princeling and also as a politburo member, it is quite likely they will be given a light sentence.
The military seems to keeping silent, yet Bo had very strong ties with the military…
Actually, one of Bo's mistakes was that as a civilian official, he had excessively close relations with generals, including generals in the Chengdu military region which covers southwestern China. Since the Wang affair in February, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has undergone several campaigns of loyalty. Most of the senior generals have appeared on TV or in newspapers, professing absolute loyalty to Hu Jintao, who is the chairman of the Central Military Commission. So I think Hu Jintao has very cleverly taken advantage of this to generate support and loyalty for himself. And it is now very likely, that even after his retirement at the 18th Party Congress, Hu Jintao will stay on as chairman of the Central Military Commission for perhaps two to three years.
Interview: Matthias von Hein
Editor: Sarah Berning