Early this year, as a crisis unfolded in the chambers of power in Chongqing, three men flew into this fog-wreathed riverside metropolis within a day or two of one another. They were members of the inner court of Bo Xilai (薄?來), the Chinese Communist Party aristocrat who ran the city, and they had come to repair a rupture between the strong-willed Bo and his equally driven police chief.
Just days earlier, on Jan. 28, the police chief, Wang Lijun (王立軍), had pressed Bo over evidence tying Bo’s wife to the death last fall of a British businessman, prompting Bo to punch Wang in the face, Wang later recounted to others. The three men — two of them powerful businessmen and the other a former intelligence agent — had befriended Bo and Wang years ago. They knew both to be controlling and impulsive, and their goal was to broker a peace.
The most famous of the three, Xu Ming (徐明), 41, listed by Forbes as China’s eighth-richest person in 2005, had flown in on his private jet. He and the others held separate meetings with Bo and Wang. The damage was irreparable. The former intelligence agent, Yu Junshi (于俊世), rushed home and stuffed a bag with 1.2 million yuan, or nearly US$200,000, to take to a bank with Ma Biao (馬標), the other businessman, known for his girth. Then all three fled to Australia within days on Xu’s jet, fearful of the fallout from a possible investigation of Bo.
Those figures are now being detained as central suspects or witnesses in the Chinese government’s broad investigation into Bo’s use of power. His fall from the party’s top echelons has opened a window on how some of his closest allies from his years as a rising official in northeast China became entwined in the social and economic fabric of Chongqing, a fast-growing western municipality of 31 million that Bo governed for four years.
The accounts about those allies, which raise questions about Bo’s relations with tycoons, are based primarily on interviews with six people associated with the circle, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of facing official scrutiny, and a review of financial documents and company Web sites. Together, they reveal the workings of the shadowy court of one of China’s leaders and of the panic that set in when these ambitious figures realized their world was about to collapse.
“These are powerful men with their own style,” one person who has met Yu said. “It was all very strange, very abnormal, the way they acted at that time.”
On Feb. 6, Wang drove to the US consulate in Chengdu and told diplomats about what he said was the murder of the Briton, Neil Heywood, which set in motion one of China’s biggest political scandals in decades: Bo has been removed from his posts, his allies are under scrutiny and his wife is a suspect in the killing.
The three men who fled to Australia have been held for two months. They left after Wang’s consulate visit, but returned to China in about 10 days, thinking that Bo had avoided serious trouble. They were picked up by the police around the time that Bo was removed as party chief of Chongqing on March 15, according to several people who knew the men or their friends and families. One with security contacts said almost 60 people had been detained.
All three had much to lose. Xu and Ma in particular had become involved in land deals in Chongqing, and feared being brought down if Bo was investigated for corruption, their associates said.