Tale of the Dragon Lady

The long, sordid history behind China's blame-the-woman syndrome.

The press has called her China's Jackie Kennedy, Lady Macbeth, and the Empress. There's been no trial, except by the blogosphere; no real evidence, beyond rumor and innuendo. Yet Gu Kailai, the wife of fallen Politburo member Bo Xilai has effectively been tried, convicted, and executed both on China's Internet and in the foreign media for the death of British businessman Neil Heywood.

It's an irresistible story: Gu Kailai, the wife of senior Communist Party figure and high-profile Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, is said to have arranged the murder and cremation without autopsy of the family confidant and her rumored lover Heywood in a Chongqing hotel in November 2011. After Bo's former police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, torpedoing Bo's career, Gu's involvement began to seep out, and in April, China's official news agency, Xinhua, confirmed that Gu was being investigated for Heywood's murder. On June 22, the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, citing "Communist Party sources," claimed that Gu has confessed to murdering Heywood.

Sadly, "dragon ladies" are an all-too-familiar trope in Chinese history: A successful man achieves power, wealth, and the love of many before being brought low by an excessive ambition encouraged by his wife, a beautiful woman obsessed with money and power. There has been a consistent demonization of women in traditional Chinese history. Blamed for the collapse of the three earliest dynasties, women were regularly described as tyrants and nymphomaniacs who destroy thrones and cause war. Even today, the Communist Party prefers the narrative of a dragon lady to the reality of a massive internal rupture in the halls of government.

We could go back a long way -- history tends to in China -- and recall Empress Wu Zetian, who ruled between 665 and 725 A.D. The Confucian historians who disliked her reforms portrayed her as sexually rapacious, a devourer of young men and corrupter of Buddhist monks. The most famous dragon lady, however, is the Dowager Empress Cixi, an outsider who rose in the late 19th century through sexual exploits from an emperor's concubine to the one person running -- and, many would argue, ruining -- the Qing dynasty. Although there's no more actual evidence of Cixi's homicidal tendencies than there is of Gu's, that hasn't stopped historical soap operas on Chinese television from claiming that Cixi murdered the Guangxu Emperor to preserve her legacy after her death.

Most dragon ladies are married to a man but wedded to the throne. Soong Mei-ling, the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, China's ruler before Mao Zedong, was allegedly politically conniving, all-corrupting, sexually promiscuous, and self-enriching. After World War II, it became clear that the Chiang family had pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars of American aid intended for the war. She reputedly bedded 1940 U.S. Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie as part of her plan to see him become president so she "could rule the East and he the West" -- though no evidence of this exists. The communist-driven historical narrative, which formerly cast Chiang as a traitor, now views him as a "misguided patriot." Today, Madame Chiang is seen as a style icon -- her cheongsams with thigh-high slits are still popular -- and a consummate manipulator. Indeed, to follow the new, approved narrative of Chiang as a misguided one is to be encouraged to believe that Madame did a large amount of the misguiding.

Jiang Qing, or Madame Mao, was as ruthless as her husband. A former movie star who became Mao's fourth wife (ousting wives is a trait Madame Chiang and Madame Mao share with Gu, herself a second wife accused of ousting the first), Jiang dictated China's cultural policy during the Cultural Revolution, personally driving dozens if not hundreds of artists to suicide. Imprisoned after her husband's death, Jiang defended herself by saying, "I was the Chairman's dog. Whoever he asked me to bite, I bit." The notion of a player behind the throne -- coming with smiles to do the dirty work of the male leader -- plays into the dragon-lady trope in both East and West, whether it's Fu Manchu's beautiful but murderous daughter Fah Lo See in the 1932 Yellow Peril B-movie The Mask of Fu Manchu, or, as we are led to believe, Madame Gu ridding her husband of Heywood, an annoying foreign irritant.

Sex sells in China, too; despite official primness, there's a public taste for prurience. Tales of conniving and murderous mistresses are constant tabloid fodder -- as are the poor family men led astray by nasty ladies of the night. It's more maddening in China because of the lip service paid to women's liberation: China had a first wave of feminism in 1949 with Mao claiming that "women hold up half the sky" and the banning of foot binding and concubinage, but he never eradicated China's deep-seated misogyny. Job ads for women still stipulate that candidates should be a certain height, with the requisite measurements and looks; workplace sexual harassment and domestic violence are commonplace, and successful women are still treated with suspicion.

Because of their husbands' influence, the wives of China's senior leaders remain off limits in mainland Chinese media. Articles don't cover President Jiang Zemin's rumored mistress, a patriotic songstress, or Prime Minister Wen Jiabao wife's alleged involvement in the diamond market. Perhaps because of this media blackout, the celebrity-style gossip that surrounds the powerful wives of Western world leaders -- Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and even Cherie Blair -- continues to fascinate Chinese tabloid readers.

But Chinese women who have achieved power on their own accord invariably have "masculine" attributes attached to them. Women, so the thinking goes, can only be successful through their sexuality, or through their manliness. Minister Wu Yi, who handled China's WTO accession negotiations in the late 1990s, was pitched by both the Western and Chinese media as the tougher of the two sides -- China's no-nonsense, tough-as-nails "Iron Lady" against the more feminine scarf-wearing U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky. Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying, one of China's most successful female diplomats, is seen as a bruiser who berated Pyongyang over its rogue nukes, slapped down Canberra over Australian iron ore prices, and put the Brits in their place over London's criticisms of human rights during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

When the Bo scandal broke, enemies needed to be found fast -- Bo was a senior party member and thus could not be portrayed as a complete traitor. A sinister manipulator had to be found, and Gu fit the historical narrative perfectly. Ultimately, dragon ladies are sideshows, part of the sleight of hand to deflect from the real action. Demonizing Cixi allowed the state to avoid picking at the rot that ran through the Qing court; focusing on Madame Chiang's legs and looted wealth distracted from the failures of the war against Japan; the obsession with Madame Mao's power plays misdirected the blame due her husband, the real architect of the chaos.

The Gu Kailai soap opera distracts as well. Did she have an affair with a suspicious foreigner? Did she amass a fortune through fear, intimidation, and political connections? Is she a murderess? Was she ultimately the power behind the throne in Chongqing and not her husband? Who knows -- the gossip is deafening; the evidence scant.

What's for sure is that while too many of us have been obsessing over whether Dragon Lady Madame Gu killed Heywood using cyanide or not, we should be paying more attention to the Communist Party's unprecedented internal fight. History is written by the victors, and in China's case, that's a group of buttoned-up old men both scornful to and deathly afraid of their women.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images


Does China Want to Dominate Afghanistan?

If only.

In northern Afghanistan, a potentially rich, U.S.-backed oil and gas tender is under way this week. Central to hopes for a face-saving force withdrawal in two years, the competition is part of a U.S. strategy of initiating a vibrant, self-sustaining industrial base in Afghanistan that can bring jobs and stability over the long term. What the tender's Pentagon advisers hope will not happen: another Chinese triumph in Afghanistan's nascent oil and mining sector. Why? As a Pentagon official told me, the United States fears that China will end up "dominating Afghanistan."

From two decades of watching and covering the country, I feel confident saying that China will not end up "dominating Afghanistan," because the Afghans are too astute to let that happen. They do not require foreigners to inform them of the downside risks of falling under the sway of an outside power. Yet how astute are we?

By appearances, not very. We seem to have determined that because China is a great rival in many sectors, it is by definition a danger everywhere. But the logic does not hold in Central and South Asia, where a robust Chinese economic role -- a Pax Sinica, if you will -- may be what stands between the success and failure of primary U.S. and Western strategic objectives. "Without China's assistance, almost nothing of sustainable consequence will happen in South or Central Asia -- in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, or elsewhere," Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Gen. Colin Powell, told me.

For two decades, the United States has sought to fashion Central Asia -- and, since 9/11, Afghanistan -- into a bastion of free-market democracy that respects human and civil rights. In the 1990s, the policy centered on reducing Russian influence in Central Asia through the construction of independent oil and gas pipelines. After 9/11, the policy shifted to creating a support base for the war in Afghanistan, eventually becoming what is known as the Northern Distribution Network. Now, NATO troops have plans to withdraw in 2014, and the United States is attempting to erect the foundation of a sustainable economic base on its way out. But the hour is late, and the plan runs the risk of Potemkinism -- a nice try aesthetically, but lacking substance. The Chinese themselves are highly unlikely to explicitly come to America's aid. But the United States could achieve some of its aims -- a more stable Afghanistan, and a more economically independent Central Asia -- with China's implicit help by embracing some of its objectives.

The Afghan tender is for six exploratory blocks of land ranging in size from 1,200 to 2,200 square miles in and around the north-central Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. According to a report last year by the U.S. Geological Service, the blocks contain an estimated 1 billion barrels of oil. If the estimate proves out, it is sufficient to attract attention from relatively large multinational oil companies. We won't know who the bidders are until Saturday, when they must file an "expression of interest" with Afghanistan's Ministry of Mines. (Complete offers are due in October, and the winner is to be announced by the end of the year.) But a Chinese company such as the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is expected to bid. If that Chinese company goes on to win, it will be the country's second big hydrocarbon triumph in Afghanistan in as many years. It will also escalate an already loud fracas in the West.

In a series of policy journal articles, most recently in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and his son, Alexander Benard, have protested last year's first-round oil tender victory by CNPC. Khalilzad, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq during the George W. Bush presidency, now runs Gryphon Partners along with his son. The firm helps companies seeking business in the two nations and elsewhere by, among other things, introducing them to senior officials there. In Afghanistan, Gryphon has represented Britain-based Tethys Petroleum, which CNPC beat out in the first oil tender. The father-and-son pair has targeted the tender's Pentagon advisers for criticism, arguing that CNPC's triumph was a mockery of fair competition, and that the Pentagon should have carried out a policy of favoring U.S. companies. The argument becomes a bit overheated -- Benard's Foreign Affairs essay suggests that the good old days were when U.S. Marines were dispatched to straighten out countries that flouted the entreaties of American businessmen. But we do come to understand that the father and son unhappily believe that they and other American businessmen need better advantages abroad to win.

But that's not how business actually gets done in this era of globalization. In Russia, for example, President Vladimir Putin has recently let three contracts for the prized Arctic go to ExxonMobil, Italy's ENI, and Norway's Statoil. In Africa, the hottest new play is the eastern coastline states of Kenya, Mozambique, and Tanzania, but the boom is led by American, British, and Italian companies. In other words, you do not have to be Chinese to win big. And there do not have to be gunboats.

In the case of Afghanistan, the Chinese are highly unlikely to win the latest tender, primarily because the Afghans will want to mix things up. But if they do win, it will not be a disaster. On the contrary, "the more economically invested China is, the more it's a status quo actor and willing to support the future stability of the country," Andrew Small, a scholar at the German Marshall Fund, told me.

We are not talking about a Chinese security role. In terms of foreign adventurism, Beijing has no record of exercising its military might abroad apart from in Tibet and the South China Sea. Perhaps its territorial notions will expand over time, but I found no one who suggested that China wishes to play a security role in Afghanistan or Central Asia.

China's role as a serious economic player in the region goes back a decade and a half. Starting in the mid-1990s, it began to seek and obtain oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. In 2006, CNPC became the only company to obtain prized rights to an onshore natural gas field in Turkmenistan, in large part by pledging to quickly monetize the field with a pipeline into China. The 1,100-mile pipeline was completed three years later.

In contrast, the West has failed to build any pipeline connecting Central Asia to the outside despite some 17 years of trying. The West's sorry pipeline story goes back to the 1991 Soviet breakup, when increasing numbers of American oil companies began to seek deals in Central Asia. The Clinton administration got behind the construction of new oil and gas pipelines as a way both to export the companies' hydrocarbons and to reduce Russian influence in the region. One idea was to build a gas pipeline across the Caspian Sea connecting Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, and on to Turkey and then Europe. In recent years, the line took on the name Nabucco.

The policy continues today, but has morphed into a truncated line known as "Nabucco West" that leaves out Turkmenistan and starts in Azerbaijan, namely because the Turkmen have refused to commit to the idea. The Obama administration has also resurrected a line promoted in the 1990s by Unocal connecting Turkmenistan to the Indian subcontinent via Afghanistan. Today it is known by the acronym TAPI.

Both lines -- Nabucco and TAPI -- have confronted serious obstacles since neither is very practical from a commercial standpoint. Yet what about turning the axis of both proposed lines east? Rather than shipping Azeri gas to the west, what about exporting it east, into the existing Turkmenistan-China line? The result would be the same -- the Caucasus in this case would have another economic outlet independent of Russia. And in the case of Afghan gas, a Chinese dogleg would also accomplish the same ultimate goal: monetizing Afghanistan's natural wealth. A parallel oil line could be built as well.

Then there is the talk of a "new Silk Road," embraced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. military's Central Command. The idea is a massive Afghan economic development program, with new roads, railroads, electric lines, and energy pipelines connecting the borders of Europe with the ports of the Arabian Sea and India, with Afghanistan as a hub in the economic center. I am told that although the plan is still being discussed, it shows no signs of materializing. There are many reasons for that, including its grandiosity. But I would raise another reason -- that it has been honchoed from Washington. According to interviews, China not only is excluded as a partner; its role appears not even to have been seriously contemplated. "There are lots of China bashers who don't like the idea of China being involved at all," said a U.S. official with knowledge of the process. The omission makes this already far-fetched plan less realistic.

As it happens, the Chinese are themselves erecting a new Silk Road, though they eschew that moniker, from which both Afghanistan and the United States could find themselves outsiders. But if the United States shakes off the cobwebs and includes China in its thinking, perhaps the Washington-led plan would seem more feasible. A centrist rationale for getting together with China to achieve such U.S. aims is not new. In the Washington Quarterly last year, Evan Feigenbaum, a former deputy assistant secretary of state and now an advisor to Mitt Romney, described the Chinese-led outlines of an evolving new Asia. "The United States and China don't need joint approaches to pursue strategic cooperation, just mutually beneficial ones," Feigenbaum wrote. "And in Central Asia, where Russia has had a near-hammerlock on the region's oil and gas, China's new assertiveness comes primarily at Russia's expense."

The Pentagon itself is not monolithic on the subject. Small, of the German Marshall Fund, suggests that a sizable number of thinkers in the Pentagon favor a more fully engaged Chinese presence in Afghanistan. Indeed, he is among the few I spoke with who think that such geopolitical logic will carry the day in U.S. policy in Central Asia. "I do actually think it's going to be one of the few areas of Chinese foreign policy where what they're doing will be seen in relatively positive terms," he said.

Ultimately, the Chinese themselves, and not just the Afghans, are likely to be restrained. The Chinese will be cautious about overstepping when the United States shifts to a civilian presence in 2014, analysts told me. In addition, CNPC and other Chinese companies have their own, limited appetite for risk and will "be hesitant about being overexposed and overcommitted," Small said. It is only left to a more nimble United States to recognize the opportunity to succeed through Chinese means.