Friday, January 25, 2013

Bo vs. Bo

Competing e-books on the Bo Xilai Scandal

Two e-books were released in late 2012 describing the sordid and eye-glazing details of the life and scandals of Bo Xilai (the recently disgraced rock-star Chinese Politburo member and head of the Communist Party’s Chongqing branch) and his wife, Gu Kailai. The first book out was The Bo Xilai Scandal by Jamil Anderlini, an FT reporter. It was published in September by FT Edits. That book was followed in November by Penguin with The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo by John Garnaut, a reporter with the Sydney Morning Herald.

The two books are similar in many respects. They are similar in length, roughly 70-80 pages, and only available digitally. They read like extended newspaper articles, and each can be devoured in a few hours. Both deal with Bo Xilai’s career and family history, his scheming wife and overindulged son Bo Guagua, the murder of Neil Heywood by the Lady Macbethian Gu, and details about Bo’s chief of police – Wang Lijun – who built a career on intimidation and brutality before turning on Gu by exposing her murder of the Englishman.

So which book should readers focus on if they want to bone up on one of the most intriguing tales of political excess to come out of China in a generation? Personally, I found that reading both accounts back-to-back was not a chore. On the contrary, they complemented and reinforced each other. First of all, there are loads of names and events involved that can be difficult to sort through unless you are already a seasoned China guy. For the rest of us, the repetition can help to follow the story more clearly. Secondly, the books have different treatments and angles. The FT Edits book is more lurid and character focused. It starts off describing the Heywood murder and goes into more gory details of the event. The book also describes more of the family relationship and personalities of Bo, Gu and their son. Therefore, it unfolds more like a thriller than Garnaut’s Penguin Special book.

However, Garnaut’s book delves deeper into the details of the political wranglings and hazardous interplay that characterize the Chinese Communist Party. Therefore, Rise and Fall is a more intellectual read. There is marginally less about Gu and Heywood. There is a more thorough coverage of Bo’s past links to the Cultural Revolution and his career ascendancy through the patronage of his Maoist father and leaders such as Jiang Zemin. The role of police chief Wang Lijun is explored in greater detail. Lastly, there are some captivating characterizations of modern Chinese politics – how the Party came to lean “more heavily on its monopoly of violence... as it was losing its monopoly on truth”, how the first rule of surviving the bureaucracy is to have “collective ownership and equal vulnerability for all actions at all times”, how politics in China is a “world of staggering brutality, corruption, hypocrisy and fragility.”

Both books are worthwhile and approachable accounts of an event – the spectacular downfall of a charismatic Princeling - that, together with cracks that China's micro-blogosphere has created in the otherwise closed media, could be a needed spark to catalyze political reform to the opaque and labyrinth world of China’s leadership. However, real change can only be brought through the reversal of billions of ill-gotten gains by the corrupt power elite and much greater transparency and accountability in the country’s governing structure. For now, at least, that prospect is so daunting that it may be easier to imagine as epic fantasy fiction.

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