March Diary
Thoughts on China, and more

Detail of a portrait of Dr. Johnson by Joshua Reynolds (1775)


John Derbyshire

Event of the month?     In the long historical run, the main event of the month may prove to have been the defenestration of Bo Xilai (“Baw Shee-lye,” more or less). Bo was the Chinese Communist Party boss of Chongqing, a huge city-region in the west of metropolitan China. There is a good character sketch of him here by veteran BBC foreign-affairs reporter John Simpson.

There is actually a sequence of events here, the March 15 cashiering of Mr. Bo being only the most prominent. Seven weeks prior to that, Bo’s chief of police had made a visit to the nearest U.S. Consulate, apparently to ask for asylum. He left the consulate the following day, and is now in Beijing under detention, probably minus a few fingernails.

Three months prior to that a British businessman, Neil Heywood, died mysteriously in a Chongqing hotel room and was cremated without autopsy. The Chinese authorities said he had died from “excessive alcohol consumption,” though he had no record of heavy drinking. Heywood was a close friend of the Bo family. Himself an alumnus of Harrow, a very prestigious English boy’s boarding school (Winston Churchill, Andrew Stuttaford), Heywood had arranged for Bo’s son to attend the school.

The deep story here is the lawlessness of China. Huge criminal networks, agencies of Party control, and major commercial corporations are locked in a macabre dance. Heywood ran a consultancy helping foreign firms establish contact with big Chinese players: Party bosses, plutocrats, and mafiosi. He knew a great deal about their connections. (He was a fluent Chinese-speaker.) You have to imagine situations like: Party boss X, married to wife Y in charge of a major corporation, whose brother Z is front man for one of the syndicates . . . 

Bo’s dismissal set off ructions all through China’s power and business structures. There have been widespread rumors of a military coup attempt. For Old China Hands, it’s all a trip down memory lane: in my case, to 1971 and the Lin Biao affair. I was newly arrived in the Far East, living in Hong Kong and hanging out with professional China-watchers. As with the Bo incident, even the oldest of the Old China Hands couldn’t figure out who was doing what to whom, and in fact the truth about Lin Biao is still unknown to this day.

Forty years on, China’s affairs are way more complex, but no more fathomable. Underneath the present fuss is the tragedy of modern China: the utter failure of this great, talented nation to make any progress towards rational government.

Communism is a horrible blight on any nation, we all know that. The common perception is that Communism is, in its later form, less of a blight in China than elsewhere, as it has at least permitted some everyday liberties.

I take the opposite view. Worse would have been better. Another ten years of Maoist lunacy followed by utter systemic collapse would have opened the possibility of rational government rising from the ruins. Instead we are just where we were 40 years ago, gangster-despots chasing each other with knives through dark corridors of power. No settled institutions, no rules for succession, no public audit of government, no independent judiciary, no channels for redress of grievances, nothing but plutocrats, mafiosi, and Party princelings endlessly jostling for advantage while ordinary people try as best they can to avoid getting trampled by the feuding mastodons.


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