Arguably the most powerful position in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) is that of the overseer of the domestic security organization. It's a job that was entrusted to a member of the nine-man standing committee of the politburo. Zhou Yongkang held that position along with being secretary of the Communist Party's benignly named political and legal affairs commission. Comrade Zhou was a very powerful man, indeed. But those days are over.
As so often happens in the rough and tumble of Chinese politics, Zhou was forced to take sides in the shocking case of the now former party leader in the immense and key city of Chongqing (Chunking), Bo Xilai. A series of events crushed the rocketing anti-corruption career of Mr. Bo, and now with him has fallen the even higher-ranking Mr. Zhou.
The first of the signs of trouble in the communist paradise came when the deputy under Bo Xilai who was the police chief in Chongqing sought refuge in the United States Consulate in Chengdu in the neighboring province of Sichuan. While that U.S. office was attempting to obtain clearance from the American Embassy in Beijing -- and in turn from the Obama Administration in Washington -- Chinese security forces showed up demanding Wang Lijun, the police chief, be returned as he was a material witness in a murder. The U.S. Consulate had no other course but to turn the fleeing security officer over to the local authorities. Whether the Chendu consulate had received any instruction from up the line is unclear. The entire story has been leaked to the British and American press in several forms -- and then re-leaked, changing the first characterization.
The murder at issue is that of a British businessman and longtime China resident, 41-year-old Neil Heywood. Heywood was known over the years to have moved in important Chinese political circles. In spite of -- or maybe because of -- operating with this extremely high profile, Heywood often was considered by other foreigners as having, at the very least, close connections with British intelligence. Some members of the press who were acquainted with him actually suspected Heywood of being a MI6 officer. But journalists reflexively do that with anyone who seems to know his way around Chinese bureaucracy. The undeniable truth was that the socially well-connected Heywood lived in Beijing with his Chinese wife and their two children while making an apparent good living guiding expatriate businesses through the Chinese political maze. All terribly above board, as they would say at Harrow, his old school.
Heywood died of cyanide poisoning, and it was revealed that Bo Xilai's wife was charged with murdering him. Bo turned to his old friend and mentor, Zhou Yongkang, to make the mess "go away." Zhou courageously threw all his considerable weight and that of his office of domestic security affairs behind his friend and protégé. Too bad for Zhou: he was hoping for support from the newly anointed prospective president, Xi Jinping, who previously had hailed Bo Xilai's accomplishments in Chongqing. Xi, however, decided it was a good time to avoid challenging the trend of opinion and became unavailable.
At this point Zhou Yongkang found that his defense of Bo Xilai was counterproductive to his own interests without helping Bo. Zhou turned his attention to preserving his own status at least until October 2012, when he was already scheduled to retire. After much politicking Zhou was able to retain his official title but lost operational control over his vast security establishment. Command for ops matters was transferred to the cabinet minister for public security affairs.
It looked like this complicated matter finally had been swept under the oriental rug when a new bombshell exploded. While Bo Xilai was being purged from all his leadership positions and his wife hauled off to jail on murder charges, the word spread that an alternate case had developed. The story now going around the diplomatic maotai circles of Beijing was that Bo's wife had been having an affair with the Englishman whom the couple had known as a close friend for years. Cuckolded Bo had arranged for the Brit to be poisoned and had used his trusted police chief to organize the hit.
The "wet affair" leaked and the police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. consulate. The Chinese authorities were in a dilemma. Was it worse to say one of their rising stars, son of revolutionary hero, Bi Yibo, had arranged for the killing of his wife's lover -- or simply charge the wife with Heywood's murder and forget about the affair? Of course there was now another alternative. Madame Bo was known as a major "fixer, herself, in the Chinese business world. What if she and Heywood were in a deal that went sour and the Brit wanted his money back? Or Bo was in on the swindle of laundering money and Heywood threatened to expose both of them? Or Bo and his wife agreed she would take the fall because they thought Bo could use his political pull with Zhou Yongkang to get her off? Or? Or?
The problem was that as a result of the already published attempted escape of the police chief, the press was immediately all over the entire story -- and still is. There was far too little time for Chinese officialdom to construct a satisfactory tale on which all their political bigwigs could agree. The end result -- at least to this point -- is that Zhou Yongkang would be publicly embarrassed but not lose his title. Madame Bo is held incommunicado in prison and Bo Xilai has been removed from all political life and taken off the politburo Christmas card list, awaiting final disposition.
Some say this scandal is an indication of the fierceness of the PRC's current internal struggle as their economy begins to falter. That may or may not be the case, but it certainly does ruin the image of the strictly disciplined Chinese communist system.
Oh, by the way, the British foreign minister swears that Neil Heywood was absolutely, positively not connected in any way with the U.K.'s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).