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?


Democracy Lab

Clueless in Gaza

It’s time for the Palestinians to change the discourse from reconciliation to elections.

On July 17, six years of Palestinian unification talks met their demise as Hamas, the far-right militarized movement and ruling party in Gaza, swiftly rejected an ultimatum by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to come to truce with its political rival Fatah. 

Efforts to patch up differences between the two groups are anything but new. Three agreements have been signed by both sides under Saudi, Qatari, and Egyptian patronage. Dozens of reconciliatory meetings have taken place. And yet Gaza remains politically separated from the West Bank. For many, Palestinian reconciliation has become a mantra, an elusive goal that is taking the Palestinians nowhere at a time when talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians are set to resume. 

Fatah, the party in control of the West Bank, is consistently at odds with Hamas over the Israel-Palestine peace process and who represents the Palestinians. This difference in perspective has led to profound disagreements over management of Palestine, most visibly manifesting in the organizing of presidential and parliamentary elections -- which are supposed to be held contiguously every four years. With the 2009 elections disrupted again and again by disagreements over electoral law, President Abbas, backed by Fatah, has been ruling Palestine with a long expired mandate. 

In an effort to present a unified front capable of combating the Gaza Strip blockade, the Palestinian National Authority (PA) is making a stand to call for elections. During a meeting to discuss U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's Israel-Palestine peace efforts with David Carroll of The Carter Center, a senior Fatah official said that August 14 (coinciding with the resumption of Israel-Palestine peace talks on the same day) would be Hamas's "last chance" to embrace unity.

But Hamas isn't having any of it. In a statement to local media, a Hamas political advisor, Yusif Rizqah, called the ultimatum "worthless," with special mention of the fact that there has been no communication between political leaders since Abbas has been "busy in meetings with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry." Speaking to AFP, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri went on to assert that Abbas had "no legitimacy to negotiate in the name of the Palestinian people on the core issues." Spokesman Ihab al-Ghossein added that "the Palestinian people will not accept those who negotiate on its behalf without a mandate." 

The kicker, however, is that if Hamas continues to refuse to participate, then whomever Fatah puts forth, either Abbas or his successor, will have sufficient authority to directly negotiate the final-status issues, e.g. borders, Jerusalem, and refugees, with Israel. 

Speak to any Palestinian politician or media pundit nowadays and you will certainly hear fancy phrases about the necessity to achieve "reconciliation" between the two groups. But with this cool response from Hamas, the time has come to change the discourse. Hamas-Fatah talks have been held sporadically under Arab mediation since 2008, but they have resoundingly failed to achieve anything. Nor is there any reason to believe that they will. 

Since there is clearly little incentive for the sides to overcome their disagreements, it is imperative to change the discourse from reconciliation to elections in order to end the Fatah-Hamas split. True, Hamas won the legislative elections in 2006. Since then, however, it has refused to hold any elections in the Gaza Strip under the pretext that mending the ties with Fatah must precede elections. 

But reality has caught up with Palestinians. Unification efforts need to take a backseat in light of the harsh consequences of delay and stagnation. Signs of frustration with Hamas have recently become more visible, making a change in tactics crucial. The Syrian conflict has meant a reduction in aid from Iran after Hamas publicly sided with the Syrian rebels against Tehran's ally Bashar al-Assad. This has cost Hamas its ability to pay the monthly salaries of civil servants and policemen. The illegal tunnels under Gaza's border with Egypt also recently collapsed, which was relied upon to blunt the impact of Israel's blockade. Today, 39 percent of Gaza's 1.5 million residents living below the poverty line, self-immolation has become the last resort for many. A Palestinian health official said that around 30 cases of attempted suicide are received monthly in Gaza hospitals. 

Hamas appears to have run out of options to meet the costs of running a viable government. 

Incidents of clashes between Hamas's police force and Palestinian civilians are also on the lips of every Gazan. The fear of Hamas, which previously found pride in its ability to impose law and order to what has been a lawless territory, seems to be vanishing. A pro-Hamas commentator has recently called for taking a "decisive position" to respond to this phenomenon, a comment reflective of the Islamist group's concern about its waning control. 

But it is essential that such an effort -- when it happens -- should come to life with the clear goal of holding elections instead of becoming a random, short fit of public anger. Fatah's members in Gaza are under close scrutiny by Hamas's internal security apparatus, while other Palestinian factions are in no better straits. Members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) have been arrested and beaten by Hamas police for handing out leaflets critical of the ruling party's policies. Even Islamic groups are not safe; the pro-Hezbollah Islamic Jihad saw one of its field commanders die in clashes with Hamas's police force following a raid on his house. 

Hamas is responding to its apparent weakness and its failure to solve the public's problems in its habitual style: It rounded up dozens of what it described as collaborators with Israel amid much local media fanfare. Some of the collaborators were handed hasty death sentences. Few have already been executed while others find themselves imprisoned on death row. 

So what to do if Hamas is unwilling to play ball? 

Non-partisan civil society in Gaza includes around 860 NGOs and hundreds more smaller community-based organizations (CBOs) that are capable of pulling off waves of public protest. Indeed, Palestinian civil society activists in the West Bank and Gaza have repeatedly attempted to end the division and put pressure on Hamas and Fatah to bridge their rift. 

One movement, organized over Facebook in early 2011, succeeded in gaining the support of tens of thousands in Gaza and the West Bank who took to the streets to demand unity. These protests were received well in the West Bank by the Palestinian Authority, which reportedly sent the protesters falafel sandwiches. (They were rejected, however, by hunger strikers protesting the detention of Palestinians by Israel.) Hamas initially approved the March 15 gatherings in Gaza City before hijacking the protest with its own partisan discourse and activists. When the disgruntled young protesters went to another location in the city, Hamas's riot police were waiting there with their batons. 

The failed 2011 attempt was an early reminder that Hamas is not willing to voluntarily relinquish its control of Gaza. But it also showed that Palestinians have had enough of the fighting. Efforts at promoting unity above all else run the risk of artificially papering over the genuine divergences of interest among various groups, leaving important differences to simmer unaddressed. The virtue of elections is that they allow for the peaceful articulation of such differences and (ideally) create conditions for the different groups involved to craft solutions. 

A Palestinian poll in March 2013 found a "dramatic reversal" in Palestinian attitudes towards reconciliation. Around half of the sample believed reconciliation was impossible and required regime change in either Gaza or the West Bank, or in both areas. The poll also showed that two thirds to three quarters of the Palestinians thought it was impossible for Fatah and Hamas to reconcile without a set date for elections. 

We cannot simply fault Israel for all the problems in Palestine. Elections in Palestine are therefore likely to be welcomed by the weary public. It will give them the final say over the destination of the Palestinian national movement and put an end to the six-year saga of wasted negotiations between Hamas and Fatah.