NEW YORKER: The real-life murder mystery unfolding at the highest ranks of the Chinese government—featuring, so far, homicide, MI6, poison, Party infighting, and a police chief whose hobby involves organ transplantation—is not only a political opera that makes Berlusconi’s antics look like community theatre. It’s also the largest Communist Party convulsion since the arrival of the Web, and the juxtaposition between Party orthodoxy and today’s information culture has laid bare a fault line in the future of “enlightened authoritarianism.”
Leninist systems are built on secrecy, on a monopoly on information to prevent the wrong ideas from leading the people down the improper path. Secrecy was easier to maintain during the last Party purge of this scale, in 1971, when Lin Biao, a military leader, died in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia, after the failure of his purported coup against Chairman Mao. It was a year before the Chinese public heard a thing about it, and forty years later China scholars are still trying to figure out what happened in the Lin Biao Incident.
Not this time. After weeks of rumors and dogged foreign reporting, state media had no choice but to announce that Bo Xilai—a rising star and Party Secretary of the megacity Chongqing, who reminds me of Huey Long for his flamboyant, leftist way of wielding authority—has been stripped of his power and detained in an investigation. Even more stunning is the news that his wife, Gu Kailai, and the family’s housekeeper, Zhang Xiaojun, have been transferred to the police on suspicion of “intentional homicide” in the case of Neil Heywood, a British businessman who’d been friendly with the Bo family until—and it’s amazing that the government is acknowledging this—“a conflict over economic interests.” Heywood turned up dead in a Chongqing hotel, and his body was abruptly cremated; the cause was listed as “excessive alcohol consumption,” though friends said he barely drank. In late March, the British government asked China to investigate. Madame Gu, a high-flying lawyer and author, has gone from being compared to Jackie Kennedy to figuring in analogies to Lady Macbeth. MORE