Former wife of fallen Chinese leader tells of a family’s paranoid side

Bo Xilai and Li Danyu in 1975

Just months before his fall from power, Bo Xilai asked the brother of his first wife to meet him at a government compound in the southwest metropolis of Chongqing.

Mr. Bo, the city’s Communist Party chief, pointed to a stack of papers and said he had forensic reports that proved the existence of a continuing plot to poison his second wife, Gu Kailai. Then he asked the other man to step into the yard and turn off his cellphone. The person suspected of masterminding the scheme, Mr. Bo said, was his son from his first marriage, Li Wangzhi, also known as Brendan Li, a graduate of Columbia University who was working in finance in Beijing.

“Could this be true?” Mr. Bo asked. When the brother-in-law insisted the fears were outlandish, Mr. Bo seemed relieved.

The story, recounted in two recent interviews with Mr. Bo’s estranged first wife, Li Danyu, 62, deepens the Shakespearean dimension of a scandal that has gripped this nation and disrupted the party’s once-a-decade leadership transition.

The Bo saga has already shown that the rise and fall of a politician in China can hinge as much on family intrigue as on political battles.

In dynastic eras, palace upheavals were often catalysed by paranoia and jealousies within the imperial family. From Qin Shihuang, the first emperor, to the Empress Dowager Cixi to Mao Zedong, China’s rulers have tended to suspect conspiracies against them and their close kin and have looked for assassins in the shadows. The same fears can arise within aristocratic Communist families today, especially among those vying for leadership positions.

Until his downfall, Mr. Bo was considered a contender for a top post during the handover of power that is taking place this autumn. But those hopes were dashed last spring when he was detained.

On Sept. 28, the party announced it was expelling Mr. Bo, 63, and would prosecute him on a range of criminal charges. Ms. Gu, 53, has been convicted of murdering a British business associate, Neil Heywood; in a twist on the earlier suspicions, Ms. Gu confessed to poisoning him last November because she thought he was a threat to her son, according to officials.

In the interviews, the first she has given to a news organisation, Ms. Li spoke in detail about her marriage to Mr. Bo, giving a rare glimpse into the early life and thoughts of the son of a revolutionary leader and someone whom Ms. Li described as an idealist enamoured of communism.

“We believed we needed to save the rest of the world from the hell of capitalism,” she said.

Ms. Li, also a “princeling” child of a party official, said that although there has been a long history of enmity between her and Ms. Gu, her son never conspired to murder Ms. Gu.

Another family member confirmed that Ms. Li’s brother had met with Mr. Bo and had been told of the alleged plot. He also insisted the son was innocent. The son and his uncle both declined to comment. Mr. Bo and Ms. Gu are under detention.

Although she has no proof, Ms. Li said she suspected Ms. Gu was the one who first blamed her son for the perceived murder plot, and the so-called forensic evidence might have been provided by Wang Lijun, the former police chief convicted of helping cover up Mr. Heywood’s murder. Ms. Li said she feared Ms. Gu wanted to have her first son arrested or harmed.

“She can be that paranoid,” Ms. Li said. As for Mr. Bo, she said, he was “good in nature and didn’t want to believe this evidence.”

Ms. Li spoke with nostalgia of her romance with Mr. Bo, which began when the two met in 1975, at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Ms. Li said she did not stay in contact with Mr. Bo after their bitter breakup in 1981.

The web of entanglements among the families reflects the insular nature of China’s “red nobility.” Ms. Li’s older brother, Li Xiaoxue, is married to Ms. Gu’s older sister, the daughter of an army general.

It was this brother who met last October, weeks before Mr. Heywood’s death, with Mr. Bo in Chongqing.

Li Xiaolin, a lawyer associated with Ms. Gu and no relation to Mr. Bo’s ex-wife, said in a telephone interview that Ms. Gu and her family members believed she had been poisoned years earlier with a heavy metal substance.

He said that he did not know whom she blamed for the poisoning. Mr. Li said that Ms. Gu’s shaking hands, evident at the trial in August, were a result of the poisoning. Ms. Gu had even taken up knitting on her doctor’s advice to try to regain control of her hand muscles, he said.

New York Times
 


Categories: Crime & Corruption

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