When I reported in China from 2005 to 2011 it was remarkable how little the foreign correspondent community -- myself included -- really knew about what was going on in the top ranks of the Communist Party.
Ministers and agency heads occasionally talk to the foreign press; senior leaders almost never do. Of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the governing body that runs China, only Premier Wen Jiabao answers questions with any regularity at press conferences (he holds one every year); he's also pretty much the only figure who has given interviews with foreign media. But when the Financial Times spoke with him in London in 2009, there were 15 other ministers and senior officials in the room, sitting in rows of chairs facing Wen. It was never clear if they were there to support or to monitor him.
Politics was a black box, walled off from the rest of the country in its own private courtyard. In its place are courtly rituals, such as the jaw-dropping National Day parades held every decade and the Party Congress planned for this autumn in the Great Hall of the People. That's when the hitherto unknown members of the next Standing Committee will make their debut in their new positions. Chinese people, foreign journalists -- and, correspondingly, the rest of the world -- will on that day learn the identity of China's new leaders and how they rank by the order in which they file on stage. But not until then.
That, anyway, was how things were supposed to work. Over the last three months, that carefully crafted script has seemingly been torn to shreds. The messy downfall of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, once widely tipped for a place in the new magic circle, has thrust Chinese politics onto front pages across the world. The surprising thing about the Bo case is not that he was ousted -- his shameless self-promotion and ruthless tactics always made him a strong candidate for a back-room putsch -- but the sheer torrent of information that has come out about Bo and his family. It is as if modern China, protected by its Great Firewall and army of censors, has in one swoop entered the 24/7 news era, with its mixture of well-informed exclusives and shameless rumor-mongering.
To recap for anyone who has missed the story -- and how could you? -- it all began to fall apart in February when Wang Lijun, Chongqing's police chief and one of Bo's right-hand men, suddenly appeared in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, 300 miles away, seeking refuge. By some accounts, he asked for asylum, by others he wanted a place to hide while central government security officials from Beijing arrived, so that he would not be turned over to Bo's police. Whatever the plan, he started to talk, leading to Bo's ouster.
Since then, international readers have been treated to a tour de force of foreign correspondence, shining more light on the realities of power in China in a few weeks than over the last few years. First came the Bo family connection to the suspicious death of Neil Heywood, an English businessman who had a soft spot for linen suits and who helped win Bo's son Guagua a place at Harrow, one of Britain's most exclusive boarding schools. Beijing has now confirmed that Gu Kailai, Bo's wife, is under investigation over Heywood's murder. Businessmen have since come forward with tales of being extorted by Bo's cronies in Chongqing and, in some cases, tortured. Bo was even somehow able to bug the phones of other senior leaders, according to one article.
Within weeks of his dismissal, the foreign media had also revealed that the extended family of Bo, who built his reputation as a crusader against corruption and had an official salary of around $1,500 a month, had amassed a fortune that Bloomberg put at $136 million. There were directorships on important state-owned companies, dubious share awards, and sweetheart business ventures with the state, such as providing fire extinguishers to government buildings. Western news was filled with tales of torture, murder, and corruption -- the charge sheet of a gangster boss rather than a politician.
But as the scandal moves from the immediate circumstances to the broader political fallout, the Bo case could become harder to report. Political stories in China can be like quicksand. White House reporters might not get to talk too often to the president, but they can speak to people who were in the room with him when he makes a decision. In China, foreign reporters have to rely on more removed sources: advisors, Chinese journalists, foreigners who have recently met senior leaders, and lower-level bureaucrats. All sources have an agenda, but the more tenuous their link to power, the harder it can be to decode their bias -- or assess their credibility. Even with reporting on Bo's fall, stories about his phone-tapping antics and links to the death of Heywood depended heavily on anonymous sources. Trying to gauge the political machinations of a group of a few dozen standing committee members, kingmakers, and PLA generals is at best an imperfect task when much of the information is coming third-hand.