China’s Goodfellas: The provincial boss and his police chief loved playing Robin Hood. But shaking down a rich man for some $700 million was a step too far.

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

  • Updated March 31, 2013, 7:20 p.m. ET

By HOWARD W. FRENCH

Color-drenched historical dramas involving endless struggles for power are a mainstay of Chinese television. Why should it be otherwise in a country with 5,000 years of history that has seen dynasties rise and fall in mind-numbing succession? Yet in the past year, a real-life political drama has presented a compelling alternative.

In a bold push for power, a provincial politician named Bo Xilai tried to use his family’s revolutionary pedigree, his charisma and his good looks to leapfrog onto the highest rung on China’s Communist Party ladder, the Politburo Standing Committee. He came close but was ultimately undone by a combination of missteps and bad luck. “A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel,” by the Chinese journalist Pin Ho and the writer and literary translator Wenguang Huang, is the most revealing work on the Bo episode to date. What emerges is an immensely complicated tale of behind-the-scenes power struggles as full of scandal, ambition and betrayal as anything that ancient history has to offer.

The Politburo Standing Committee was reshuffled last year as part of China’s once-a-decade leadership succession. In the lead-up, Mr. Bo had achieved a remarkably high profile for himself as governor of Chongqing, a center-west province, roughly the size of Austria, of 32 million people. Most everything he did there was exceptional for a high-level Chinese politician and thus unusually risky: He espoused his own brand of ideological politics, mixing statist populism with elements of nostalgic Maoism. He tirelessly drew attention to himself, building something approaching a local personality cult in his crackdown against organized crime. And he all but openly campaigned for the big promotion he craved, buttering up the likes of China’s former president and power broker Jiang Zemin and his successor and main factional rival, the outgoing party leader Hu Jintao.

The proximate cause of Mr. Bo’s downfall was a staple of historical dramas: the villainous wife. As the authors detail, the governor’s position swiftly and spectacularly unraveled after his spouse, the almost equally attractive, pedigreed and ambitious Gu Kailai, was connected to the murder by cyanide poisoning of one Neil Heywood, a British national. The revelation emerged after Mr. Bo’s theatrical and thuggishly overzealous handpicked police chief, Wang Lijun, sought asylum at the U.S. consulate in the city of Chengdu, spilling the beans on the Heywood murder.

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A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel

By Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang
(PublicAffairs, 334 pages, $27.99)

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