The Princeling of Manhattan

Will the exiled son of China's most notorious politician reclaim his father's legacy?


Two thousand years ago, in the kingdom of Jin, there was a courtier named Zhao Shuo whose grandfather and father both served as prime ministers. When a new ruler came to power, he felt threatened by the Zhao clan’s influence and arrogance. With the help of a powerful general, he executed the entire family except for Zhao’s pregnant wife, who escaped.

She gave birth to a son, known as the Zhao Orphan, who spent years studying ancient Chinese classics and Kung Fu, becoming a learned scholar and a fearsome swordsman. There are many different versions of the tale — an ancient drama, a hit 2010 Chinese film, a 2012 opera adaptation — and most end with the Zhao Orphan avenging his family by slaughtering the general and returning triumphantly to court. The saga of Bo Xilai, the former party boss of Chongqing and Politburo member who is set to face trial this month for corruption, embezzlement, and abuse of power, is a modern variation on this traditional theme: a family empire collapsing after losing a brutal power struggle. But the fate of this generation’s Zhao Orphan — Bo Guagua, the son of Bo Xilai — remains unknown.

Most of the key characters in the real-life drama have met their end. Last August, Bo’s wife Gu Kailai received a suspended death sentence for murder; in September, Bo’s former right-hand-man Wang Lijun was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Some of Bo’s allies within the senior ranks of the party and the military have been purged and many of his cohorts in Chongqing have been sacked or jailed. As far as we know, Guagua, the 26 year-old son of Bo and his wife, and the heir apparent to the Bo family dynasty, is the last one standing.  

Born in 1987, Guagua is a de facto member of China’s communist aristocracy — his maternal grandfather was a powerful general, while his paternal grandfather, Bo Yibo, held the rank of vice-premier, a higher position than his son, Bo Xilai, ever attained. Before his father incited the biggest political scandal to rock China in decades, Guagua lived a charmed life. At age 12, he enrolled at the elite Harrow School in London. The first Chinese national to attend the school in its nearly 550-year history, Guagua told a Chinese talk show host in 2009 that he studied Shakespeare, developed his oratorical skills, took up fencing, and became president of the equestrian club. He then went to Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics, and economics, and in 2010 he enrolled in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

It is not uncommon for Chinese princelings — the sons and daughters of top Chinese officials — to study overseas, but Guagua was unusually high profile. At Harvard, he lived in an apartment that rented for around $3,000 a month and drove around in a Porsche. According to the British newspaper Daily Telegraph, in 2010 Guagua helped organize a "China Trek" for his classmates; he arranged for them to meet senior communist leaders in Beijing and gave them a grand tour of Chongqing, complete with a police motorcade.  

The public attention soon proved to be a political liability for his father, who at the time was conducting a controversial campaign to fight corruption in the municipality of Chongqing. Bo seemed hypocritical for championing Maoist ideology to the people of Chongqing while encouraging his own son to spend tens of thousands of dollars of someone’s money — it is still not clear whose — to study Western politics and philosophy.

On March 9, 2012, at a combative press conference at the sidelines of China’s annual congress, Bo Xilai called reports that his son had been caught driving around Beijing in a red Ferrari "nonsense," and said that Guagua’s Oxford and Harvard educations were paid by scholarships. There are people, Bo said, who have "poured filth on myself and my family." Six days later, the filth caught up with him: Bo was removed from his position, the culmination of years of political infighting. He hasn’t been seen in public since, though in late July prosecutors charged Bo with "bribery, abuse of power and corruption." 

Since Bo’s dismissal, Guagua has received added scrutiny: Pictures of him posing bare-chested with two young Caucasian women at an Oxford costume party, urinating in a park, and vacationing with the granddaughter of revolutionary veteran Chen Yun in Tibet, have circulated widely on the Chinese Internet. His father’s foes have called on the government to bring Guagua back to China from the United States for investigation. "The party leadership should extradite Bo Guagua," said a Chinese journalist who was imprisoned by Bo Xilai in the 1990s. "Otherwise, he could turn into a potential threat and the current leadership would bitterly regret."

The uncertainties surrounding his father’s case and talks of extradition in the media have forced the modern-day Zhao Orphan to disappear from public view. In early August, news surfaced that Bo Guagua has enrolled in Columbia University Law School. A pro-Bo princeling, who asked to speak anonymously, said the news could indicate that Bo Xilai has struck a deal with President Xi Jinping and will plead guilty to the charge of corruption. In return, Guagua will be shielded from prosecution and the Bo family would be able to preserve some of its assets overseas, including a villa in Cannes.  

There is an added benefit: studying at Columbia will enable Bo Guagua to keep his legal status in the United States without applying for political asylum, and allow him the distance to nurse and meditate on his grievances. "The political calamity that befell the Bo family could be the catalyst for Bo Guagua’s transformation from a dandified playboy to a man of political conviction," says Chen Xiaoping, a New York-based China scholar. "Bo’s family tragedy might stoke his political ambition."

That might prove a bit optimistic, but there is something almost Kennedy-esque about the rise and fall of the house of Bo: A U.S. lawyer described Gu Kailai as the "Jackie Kennedy of China" because of her "brains, charm and beauty"; he knew her in 1998, around the same time she reportedly met Neil Heywood, the British businessmen she was convicted of murdering. Guagua inherited his father’s good looks, charisma, passion for public service, media savvy, and probably his ambition as well. "He wants to make a billion dollars and be politically important," said a Chinese businessman who knows Guagua, according to an April 2012 Reuters article. Guagua, moreover, was rumored to have confided to a friend that he aspired to be the John F. Kennedy of China — the charismatic leader of a new, more open generation.

Whether that can happen anytime soon is an open question. In a speech at Beijing University in 2009, Guagua told his young audience that he was not planning to pursue politics, but instead was interested in spreading education and culture to "benefit the people." It’s a common denial for aspiring politicians both in the United States and China — but since seeing what happened to his father, his ambitions may have sharpened. The tale of the Zhao Orphan normally ends with the protagonist righting the wrongs of his parent’s generation. Will Guagua have the same opportunity?

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