Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom: Motives and Motifs in the Curious Case of Bo Xilai

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom's most recent books are China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, available in paperback and Kindle editions from Oxford University Press, and the forthcoming University of California Press anthology Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, which he co-edited with Angilee Shah. Wasserstrom is Chair of the History Department at the University of California, Irvine.

One of the many things that I like about the Los Angeles Review of Books is that we have a designated editor for noir. Be it hard-boiled, true crime or international espionage, I have always enjoyed unraveling the puzzles of a good whodunit. But the real force of such stories, at least when set in distant times or foreign places one has never been, is how they expose common patterns of life within a previously unfamiliar setting. 

Looking back at my freshman year in college, I can honestly say that encounters with a detective novel and a true crime work helped steer me toward my chosen profession. No, I don’t solve — or commit — crimes for a living. But I might never have ended up with my actual day job of teaching and writing about Chinese history if I hadn’t been so entranced with the first class I took on China, and the assigned reading that went with it. One of the books was a novel featuring Judge Dee, a magistrate with a talent for deduction based on an actual bureaucrat who lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Reading The Chinese Bell Murders, by Robert Van Gulik, I was transported more than a millennium to a setting in which — to cite just one example that that has always stuck with me — the beggars were organized into a formal guild. The other book was The Death of Woman Wang, an elegantly crafted work of historical re-creation by Jonathan Spence, which begins with an earthquake, ends with a husband strangling his wife, and uses both of these dramatic events, as well as local folktales and mundane aspects of quotidian existence, to evoke the social and cultural dynamics of life in a Chinese county in the seventeenth century. 
Lately, however, simply following the news about China has been enough to get me thinking about clues, suspects, poison and other standbys of my favorite sort of fiction, along with the plot devices and characters found in a related genre, the novel of intrigue and espionage. Enter the curious recent chain of events involving Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai: a year ago, this now-disgraced couple seemed to be living a charmed existence. Bo Xilai was Party Secretary of Chongqing — a giant metropolis in western China — and a member of the Politburo. Often described as a “Princeling” due to his status as the son of a revolutionary hero, Bo Yibo (who had been a prominent comrade in arms of Mao Zedong), he employed a variety of high profile tactics, from launching an aggressive drive to rid his city of organized crime to sponsoring the mass singing of “red songs” (Mao era anthems). Needless to say, Bo Xilai was ambitious, and sought to secure a spot on the all-powerful Standing Committee—the most important body within the Politburo and one that will have openings to fill this fall....

Thinking about comparisons to Enron and Watergate point to what is most meaningful about China’s biggest political scandal of the year. The tragedy of what is unfolding in China lies not so much in revelations about abuses of power taking place, as these can and do happen in so many political systems, but rather that those that occur in China still cannot be dealt with via mechanisms such as the Watergate hearings and Freedom of Information Act....

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