Meet the victims of Bo Xilai’s Chongqing reign
APRIL 23, 2012

The very public disgrace of Bo Xilai, the deposed Communist Party chief of China’s heartland megacity Chongqing, is a chronicle of a fall foretold. In 2009, Bo grabbed headlines in the Western press for his campaign to stamp out widespread corruption as leader of the region of more than 32 million inhabitants. Handsome, with an impeccable revolutionary pedigree (his father was a former vice-premier), Bo was seen as either cleverly positioning himself for a seat on the highest decision-making body in China, the Politburo Standing Committee, or proving himself a liability to the leaders of the Communist Party who would find his swashbuckling ways unnerving.

Bo was undoubtedly ambitious, and in many ways he improved Chongqing. Under his three-and-a-half year tenure, the province grew at nearly 15 percent a year on average. He said he planned to build cheap housing for 2.4 million people and attract international investment on the scale of Hong Kong. But he was too carelessly open about his willingness to use the brutal, secretive tactics of his criminal targets to accomplish his goals. Bo’s crackdown — which led to thousands of questionably legal arrests, dozens of high-profile, lurid show-trials, and executions of gangsters, lawyers, and public officials — was clearly designed to draw attention to himself.

As Christina Larson’s eerily prescient feature on Chongqing for these pages noted in 2010: “If you have a framed photo of yourself shaking hands with Bo Xilai, you’re going somewhere in Chongqing.” Since then, the Communist Party has stripped Bo of his Politburo seat and announced an investigation of his wife Gu Kailai for her role in the murder of a British businessman Neil Heywood. As events have played out — with last week’s reports of Bo loyalists being rounded up for questioning — that “somewhere” could be a prison, or a grave.

Before his downfall last month, many in China celebrated Bo as a champion of the common man, protecting people against rampant organized crime by taking on major players in the rapidly expanding city. After the mass trials, thousands of residents of Chongqing claimed they were mistreated or beaten by plainclothes cops or thugs, who forced them out of their homes to fuel the city’s relentless expansion. To them, Bo seemed like the face of reform. While Bo may still be respected in Chongqing, it’s difficult to tell if he was part of the solution or part of the problem.

In February 2009, drawn by the reports of a city overrun by gangsters with fantastic names like “The Godmother of the Underworld,” I went to Chongqing to follow the corruption trials, which in hindsight were Bo’s Icarus moment, bringing him to the heights from which he would fall. I spoke with low-level victims of the city that Bo built, casualties of high-level politics petitioning for redress. I met them on the steps of the courts in central Chongqing, and let them lead me across the vast city to the piles of rubble where they said their homes once stood. None of their stories could be independently confirmed, but they’re indicative of the Wild-West atmosphere of Chongqing’s explosive growth under Bo. As one of the women I met put it: “The surroundings [of Chongqing] are getting better, but my situation is getting worse.”

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