On May 12, 1993 the Wall Street Journal ran a front page story by staff reporters Jacob M. Schlesinger in Tokyo and James McGregor (@jamesLmcgregor) in Beijing entitled, “Unlikely Friends: Sino-Japanese Trade Soars as Old Enemies Cautiously Embrace.” The story concerned the budding business relations between Japan and China, specifically the blossoming opportunities in Dalian, in China’s northeast. Dalian had just received a new mayor, the “clean-cut 44-year-old,” Bo Xilai.
In what seems to have been a prescient though disingenuous bit of political-speak, Bo, commenting on the growing connections between former enemies, said “History is history and now is now. The war belongs to the previous generation. We should not seek revenge or express hatred because of left-over feuds.” But in East Asia this turn of empty speech ignored the fact that in this part of the world memories are indelible, more like cross-generational tattoos. No one forgets anything. Nineteen years later Japan and China are still battling over whose history, whose maps, and whose rights of possession are more correct. The dueling versions of history are no longer solely owned by the “previous generation.” The current generation of leaders long ago stepped into the worn shoes of their parents and found that they fit quite well, at least for now. In some cases the older generation is still officially hanging on, keeping old wounds forever oozing and ensuring that at least some of the next generation will get it correct. For a good current example read Tokyo Mayor’s History of Needling Beijing that appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report yesterday, April 17, 2012. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara pronounces on
- the Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial dispute, where Ishihara compares the Chinese actions in this ongoing confrontation to the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. (For more on the allegations of China as a Mafia State see here)
- the veracity of the Chinese version of the Nanjing Massacre (one that is hardly in dispute outside of Japan),
- and the need to fragment the Chinese empire into smaller, more manageable states.
These are all historical issues that are not going to suddenly disappear once an old war horse finally stumbles from the stage. And in 1993 the young Bo Xilai was quite aware of the irremediable nature of the long list of Sino-Japanese contentions. But this was business, and dreams of wealth always have a way of blinkering cultural differences to maximize profits.
Even at the outset of his higher level career Bo Xilai, former Red Guard and magnetic son of the revolutionary general, Bo Yibo – one of the “eight elders” of the CCP who set China’s course in the post-Mao era – was comfortable tossing out a savvy business dictum and anchoring it in a falsely sentimental view of history. Although he was just setting out on a public political career that would keep his name in the mix for the next 19 years, he knew what needed to be said, as well as when and how to say it. He had gleaned the necessary skills to survive in the zero-sum arena of Party politics, where resurrections after political death are anomalies and not the norm. History has a way of dealing from anywhere in the deck, a fact that Bo had always been aware of. Despite the strange deal, he’d become more than capable at cobbling together a good hand. That he forgot those lessons as the Chongqing lights glowed brighter allowed him to place a bet that he was finally unable to cover.
Short of a miraculous turn of events, his future doesn’t appear to be auspicious. Where he is or what will become of this larger-than-Party player is anyone’s guess, though it is not unrealistic to think that his name will remain in the historic mix, albeit battered, as a cautionary whisper. In the cryptic Machiavellian palace halls of the Party, his name will be mumbled as a warning of an approaching abrupt edge, the signaling of the imminency of a cliff coming up, as more Machiavellian than is officially acceptable: watch your back; watch your front; watch your public desires.
What has become clear in this classically labrythine Chinese meander is that there is very little clarity. The convoluted mess includes, as we’ve been led to believe: corruption, executions, asylum seeking, murder, money laundering and a woman – Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai – who’s been portrayed as a Chinese version of both Jackie Kennedy and Lady Macbeth, a mash-up I am personally having difficulty with.
And then there’s Bo Guagua, the MacKennedy’s son, a kid with a given name of melon melon. If someone could clear this up for me, I’m all ears. In other languages Guagua is a minibus, a small Filipino city, an indigenous language of northern South Amercia and the surname of an Ecuadoran footballer. But in Chinese I haven’t been able to lay my hands on anything other than melon melon. I’ve even checked The Three Kingdoms. All I can figure is that there’s some longevity implication, as in longevity gourds. In China, longevity (shòu) is the deal, though it’s not to be confused with the notion that quantity trumps quality. My take on the Chinese view of longevity is that if you live long enough you’ll survive all the bad things that have happened to you throughout your life, finally attaining some level of untouchability that might actually slip across the border into senility. So, Guagua may actually be the rectified name, another bit of odd prescience from the scheming mind of Bo Xilai.
Despite what his name may or may not mean, it’s obvious that Xiao Bo’s parents found him too good for Chinese education, a not uncommon conclusion that many monied Chinese reach without much thought of a domestic alternative. His checkered academic trail includes a march through England, starting with Papplewick, moving on to the Harrow School, and ending his Brit jaunt at Balliol College, Oxford College, where he was rusticated, which in Oxford terms means something like “being sent (sat) down.” But that didn’t curb his passion for further education, and he moved on to the equally privileged halls of the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in the U.S. Along the way he has acquired a reputation as a playboy, party guy (fun, not political, though he did campaign for a student government position at Balliol, a move seen by the natives as being rather tawdry), lover of fast, expensive cars, though not much of a student. To read more about his elite education and image – his lack of academic rigor has been a concern for his family, while his ostentatious lifestyle has been an ongoing hurdle that Party leaders have been unable to clear – check here and here. Now that his parents are effectively shut-ins, or, rather, guests of the State, Bo Guagua is somewhere in the U.S., spirited off by some
federal law enforcement agency private security company in an SUV while apparently being surveilled by agents of the Chinese government in Cambridge, MA. His girlfriend du jour followed later in his Porsche that was loaded to the gills with his stuff. Obviously it could not have been much if it fit into a Porsche. Then again, a pack full of cash goes a lot further than a sofa.
What is most interesting in this very public, though highly orchestrated, unfolding of a family’s downfall, is that it gives us a peek into the secret lives of the real Party boys, many of whom, I assume, are losing sleep over the public airing of some very dirty laundry, even as they spin this tale into one that is full of what I assume to be their selected unnamed sources. Though their children may have taken the same academic path as Bo Guagua, they have had more sense in keeping the lid on the showboating. The first generation of revolutionaries were products of a very damaged Chinese system, punctuated by overwhelming poverty, illiteracy and hard, short lives of backbreaking toil. Although some were able to receive overseas educations – Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping being the most famous – they did it the hard way, not luxuriously as the current children of the CCP leadership are able to do. The desire for parents to want their children to have lives materially better than the ones they had, especially among those who have had very little, has been one of the forces that drives human social development. But wealth and status are relative. Having a three-wheeled cart in some cases is a significant progression when compared to what parents or grandparents had. But having gobs of cash and flashing it around in a ‘communistically’ indecent fashion is imprudent in a country where the periodically restive have-nots still live very much on the edge. Bo Xilai’s sins were many, but for the command cadres at the top of the pile, the sin of bling is a mortal violation, especially when an official salary might afford you a week in a three-star hotel on the beach at Yalong Bay in Sanya. Image is everything, and keeping the profile low while raking in bucketloads of cash is a must. The Bos didn’t toe that line, a line drawn indelibly in the history of the Party.
The players in the Bo Family Affair – both the very public and the secretively private players – cover the breadth of the history of the CCP. Bo was, and is still, a very clever man, though his cleverness more likely than not, will be permanently muted by his indiscrete overreaching and his lack of understanding of the true primacy of history and who gets to move it forward. There are still callouses and old wounds that date back to the Long March that are informing the course of China’s current events. Some things are not so easily forgotten, especially the “left-over feuds.” You can still have the Ferrari, but it’s best to keep the windows tinted so the laobaixing can’t see who’s at the wheel. Or so the story still goes in the palaces of the Party where dark suits, red ties, hair dye and extraordinary silence are requisites for the longevity of a prison-free retirement.
For an update on the Ferrari Tales, see Losing the Wheels.