Undated family photograph of Li Danyu with Bo Xilai, then her husband
|Bo Xilai now
|Gu, the second wife of Bo
Beijing, Oct. 7: 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.
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, 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?” Bo asked. When the brother-in-law insisted the fears were outlandish, Bo seemed relieved.
The story, recounted in two recent interviews with 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, 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 September 28, the party announced it was expelling Bo, 63, and would prosecute him on a range of criminal charges. His second wife Gu, 53, has been convicted of murdering a British business associate, Neil Heywood; in a twist on the earlier suspicions, 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, Li spoke in detail about her marriage to Bo, giving a rare glimpse into the early life and thoughts of the son of a revolutionary leader and someone whom 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.
Li, also a “princeling” child of a party official, said that although there has been a long history of enmity between her and Gu, her son never conspired to murder Gu.
Another family member confirmed that Li’s brother had met with 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. Bo and Gu are under detention.
Although she has no proof, Li said she suspected 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 Heywood’s murder. Li said she feared Gu wanted to have her first son arrested or harmed.
“She can be that paranoid,” Li said. As for Bo, she said, he was “good in nature and didn’t want to believe this evidence”.
Li spoke with nostalgia of her romance with Bo, which began when the two met in 1975, at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Li said she did not stay in contact with Bo after their bitter break-up in 1981.
The web of entanglements among the families reflects the insular nature of China’s “red nobility”. Li’s older brother, Li Xiaoxue, is married to Gu’s older sister, the daughter of an army general. It was this brother who met Bo in Chongqing.
Li Xiaolin, a lawyer associated with Gu and no relation to Bo’s ex-wife, said in a telephone interview that Gu and her family members believed she had been poisoned years earlier with a heavy metal substance.
Li said that Gu’s shaking hands, evident at the trial in August, were a result of the poisoning. Gu had even taken up knitting on her doctor’s advice to try to regain control of her hand muscles, he said.
Several people close to Bo’s family said they had heard Gu was poisoned at one time, and that there was extreme paranoia within the household in recent years. But three family friends said they did not believe Gu was fabricating evidence about Li’s son.
They said Li had long resented Gu and waged private attacks against Bo and Gu to discredit them.
Li and Bo, whose elite families had known each other for years, began their love affair in 1975. Bo had just endured years of prison during the Cultural Revolution, when his father was purged, and was working in a factory.
Li, whose family had also suffered, was working as a military doctor. “What he did a lot was he read the selected works of Marx and Lenin,” Li said. “He was a simple and progressive young man.”
Living in different cities because of their jobs, they wrote letters to each other every three days. In a poem, Bo ends with lines that reflect both political fervour and romantic feelings:
Raise the army banner,
And laugh still more, gazing at the red cosmos,
Spare no effort to move forward.
Li’s first name means “red cosmos”. They were married in September 1976 and had a son the next year. Bo enrolled in Peking University. He tried to read eight pages of English each day from library books, she said.
The two moved into Zhongnanhai, the Beijing leadership compound, after Bo’s father became a vice-premier. But Bo did not aspire to join those ranks, Li said. Bo switched from studying history to journalism.
The end of the relationship began on their son’s fourth birthday, June 20, 1981. Bo surprised Li by asking for a divorce. “He felt very sad and cried and hugged us,” she said. That night, he told her, “I have no feelings for you anymore.”
Li refused to grant the divorce. The case went to court and the divorce was completed in 1984. Gu, in a book she wrote, said she met Bo that year in Dalian. But Li said Bo might have been secretly seeing Gu when the two were at Peking University, while Bo was still married.
“In the early years it was pure love,” she said. “… I forget the bad things and remember the good. You don’t want to live with hate.”