Tea Leaf Nation

New Year’s Surprise: Jailed Chinese Pol Bo Xilai ‘Physically Okay’

A social media update by a once-estranged son was soon censored.

China Holds Annual National People's Congress
<> at The Great Hall Of The People on March 6, 2010 in Beijing, China.

After receding from Chinese headlines, the tumultuous family life of jailed politician Bo Xilai flashed briefly into public view on Jan. 1 before disappearing once again. In a message posted to Chinese social media and captured by Foreign Policy before it was deleted, Bo’s formerly estranged son wrote that his father was physically well and could receive treatment when sick.

In a Jan. 1 post on Weibo, China’s Twitter, 37-year-old Li Wangzhi wrote that in early 2014, he had his first meeting with Bo in seven years. Bo, at one point a member of the powerful Communist Party Politburo and party Secretary of the megacity of Chongqing, was stripped of his positions in April 2012 and sentenced to life in prison in September 2013 for taking bribes and abusing his power. Li, Bo’s son through his previous marriage to Li Danyu, had been estranged from his father since 2007, telling Bloomberg in April 2012 that Bo’s downfall had “destroyed my life” by besmirching the younger Li’s reputation. Li now lives in Beijing, and although Bloomberg wrote in 2012 that the Columbia-educated Li worked in private equity, his Weibo account now describes him as a “freelancer” and “legal professional.”

Bo’s downfall lifted the veil on a deeply dysfunctional family life, including reports that Li had tried to poison Bo’s second wife, Gu Kailai, now herself serving the equivalent of a life prison term for murdering a family confidant with poison. It had been unclear whether Bo himself gave the accusations credence, but according to Li’s recent post, the “first words” out of Bo’s mouth upon their early 2014 reunion was that he had “never believed” the allegations and had already “put them on the shelf.”

Li’s early 2014 meeting with Bo was not the most recent, according to Li’s post. He wrote that 2014 had “been the year where I recall seeing more of my father than any time in the past 30 years,” adding he was hopeful that he could have “as many more opportunities to see [Bo]” as the “law allows.” Over the years, Li’s meetings with his father have seldom been in felicitous circumstances — Li wrote, “sometimes I think about how if I wasn’t seeing [Bo] at a funeral, it was in court, or in prison” — but they mark a change in tone from Li, who said in 2012 that he had left the Bo family “a long time ago.”

Li concluded by writing that he had received “numerous” private messages inquiring about Bo, and that he was “physically doing okay; although [living] conditions are limited, he can receive treatment when he is sick.” (One report translated the same passage to read that Bo “was receiving medical treatment for an unnamed condition,” but the text does not appear to support that interpretation.)

Censors are now quick to clamp down on online discussions that appear politically sensitive, particularly when it comes to chatter about Bo, whose downfall captivated social media in 2012 because it exposed schisms at the very top of the ruling party. As of January 3, Li’s message would not load on his Weibo account; some commenters complained about the message’s having been deleted by censors, and Free Weibo, a mirror site, shows that multiple posts about Li Wangzhi’s announcement have been censored. But online support for the controversial Bo, who continues to enjoy significant grassroots support in Chongqing, was not hard to find. Several hundred comments to Li’s post remain visible, many wishing “the Secretary,” i.e. Bo, well.

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David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.

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