When Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) picked up the telephone in August last year to talk to a senior anti-corruption official visiting Chongqing, special devices detected that he was being wiretapped — by local officials in the southwestern metropolis.
The discovery of that and other wiretapping led to an official investigation that helped topple Chongqing’s charismatic leader, Bo Xilai (薄熙來), in a political cataclysm that has yet to reach a conclusion.
Until now, the downfall of Bo has been cast largely as a tale of a populist who pursued his own agenda too aggressively for some top leaders in Beijing and was brought down by accusations that his wife had arranged the murder of Neil Heywood, a British consultant, after a business dispute. However, the hidden wiretapping, previously alluded to only in internal Communist Party accounts of the scandal, appears to have provided another compelling reason for party leaders to turn on Bo.
The story of how Hu was monitored also shows the level of mistrust among leaders in the one-party state. To maintain control over society, leaders have embraced enhanced surveillance technology, but some have turned it on one another — repeating patterns of intrigue that go back to the beginnings of Communist Party rule.
“This society has bred mistrust and violence,” said Roderick MacFarquhar, a historian of China’s elite-level machinations over the past half century. “Leaders know you have to watch your back because you never know who will put a knife in it.”
Nearly a dozen sources with party ties, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution, confirmed the wiretapping, as well as a widespread program of bugging across Chongqing, but the party’s public version of Bo’s fall omits it.
The official narrative and much foreign attention has focused on the more easily grasped death of Heywood in November last year. When Bo’s police chief, Wang Lijun (王立軍), was stripped of his job and feared being implicated in Bo’s family affairs, he fled to the US consulate in Chengdu, where he spoke largely about Heywood’s death.
The murder account is pivotal to the scandal, providing Bo’s opponents with an unassailable reason to have him removed, but party insiders say the wiretapping was seen as a direct challenge to central authorities. It revealed to them just how far Bo was prepared to go in his efforts to grasp greater power in China. That compounded suspicions that Bo could not be trusted with a top slot in the party, which is due to reshuffle its senior leadership positions this fall.
“Everyone across China is improving their systems for the purposes of maintaining stability, but not everyone dares to monitor party central leaders,” one official with a central government media outlet said, referring to surveillance tactics.
According to senior party members, including editors, academics and people with ties to the military, Bo’s eavesdropping operations began several years ago as part of a state-financed surveillance buildup, ostensibly for the purposes of fighting crime and maintaining local political stability.
The architect was Wang, a nationally decorated crime-fighter who had worked under Bo in the northeast province of Liaoning. Together, they installed “a comprehensive package bugging system covering telecommunications to the Internet,” the media official said.