Chinese Political Scandal Evolves Into Murder Mystery

A scandal in China has led to the ouster of a powerful political player, who was once a rising star in the Communist Party. Richard MacGregor, a former China bureau chief for the Financial Times, talks to Renee Montagne about the scandal. MacGregor also authored The Party, a book about China's political system.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This week, a gripping political scandal in China turned into a murder mystery. It involves a powerful Communist Party leader and his wife, and a British businessman who was found dead in a Chinese hotel room.

To help us understand these dramatic yet murky events, we turn to Richard MacGregor. He was a correspondent in China for the Financial Times, and also wrote the book "The Party," on how Chinese politics work.

And thank you for joining us.

RICHARD MACGREGOR: Pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Right now, the man at the center of this scandal, Bo Xilai, is out of his job as party chief in this huge metropolis in the southwestern part of China. Perhaps more importantly, he's been dismissed from the Politburo. That's the 25-member group that runs the Communist Party for the whole country. This is being called the biggest political downfall to happen in more than, you know, a couple of decades. What was he doing wrong, politically?

MACGREGOR: There's no doubt, Renee, that this is an earthquake in Chinese politics. As you said, you know, it's the biggest thing to happen since the Tiananmen Square and Beijing protests. And we saw how that ended. Let's roll back a little bit and see how he was, only a little - six months ago, was riding high. He started this political campaign harkening back to the days of Mao Tse-tung and sort of Communist Party nostalgia. And it lifted his profile but on top of that, he's almost like China's first Western-style politician. You know, he's high-profile. He loves getting in the media. And what he was doing out in Shanxi was almost unheard of in China. He was using that profile to campaign publicly to join the inner circle of the Chinese leadership, to be chosen at the end of the year.

They usually - according to the sort of unwritten rules of Chinese Communist Party politics, you don't campaign in public for a top position like this. This is an internal election, and I think a lot of people were very annoyed at how he'd gone about this. So that made him politically vulnerable. But the turning point was when his former police chief in Shanxi, who'd fallen out with Mr. Bo, rushed to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, seeking safety there. That was just treasonous. To involve the Americans in an internal Chinese political affair, and internal Chinese political dispute and corruption case, was really the end of the road. And I think when that happened, Mr. Bo was finished.

MONTAGNE: Then, this week, there was the news that his wife - that she is being accused of potentially committing murder.

MACGREGOR: This is the most remarkable part of the case, the kind of Stieg Larsson element, if you like, you know, "The Wife with the Dragon Tattoo." When Chinese leaders get into trouble, their families are usually involved in one way or the other, but this is way beyond that. This is a homicide case of a foreigner allegedly being murdered.

MONTAGNE: British citizen Neil Heywood is his name, and the question is whether he was poisoned.

MACGREGOR: Yes. It sounds like sort of the court eunuchs or something back in the Qing Dynasty, sort of slipping a vial of poison into their enemies or something. It's quite weird. It turns out that he had extensive business dealings with Mr. Bo's wife and other members of the family. And, you know, for him to be actually murdered is just astounding. And I think that's one reason why the authorities there have taken it so seriously.

MONTAGNE: What do you see happening to Bo Xilai and his wife at this point?

MACGREGOR: Well, Mr. Bo is being investigated by the party, not the police. And according to the statements they've made so far, you'd have to say it's very likely - at least, if he doesn't go to jail - he'll be expelled from the party, and he'll have no more place in formal politics. As far as the wife goes, it's impossible to say. As you say, it's an alleged murder. But for the prosecutors to even say that - I mean, not many people who are investigated, and on the verge of charges in China, are ever found not guilty. So I think it's very likely she'll go to jail for a long, long time.

MONTAGNE: Richard MacGregor is currently the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the Financial Times. His book about the Chinese Communist political system is called "The Party." Thank you very much for joining us.

MACGREGOR: Thank you.

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