A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel

Murder, Money, and An Epic Power Struggle in China

By Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang

Public Affairs. 352 pp. $27.99

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Reviewed by Charles Desnoyers

As China grows steadily more powerful and influential, its internal politics, replete with intrigues of Orwellian proportions and complexity, are becoming increasingly prominent on the world stage.

When these include the spectacular murder of a foreigner and a chain of connections leading all the way to the highest offices of the land, the affair becomes front page news all over the world.

So it was with the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood and the role of politburo member Bo Xilai, his wife, Gu Kailai, and a web of officials leading all the way to China's recently retired premier, Wen Jiabao.

Heywood, 41, was found dead in his room at the Lucky Holiday Hotel just outside the provincial city of Chongqing on Nov. 15, 2011. The cause of death was reported initially as "sudden death after drinking alcohol."

By early 2012, the story had taken a bizarre turn. Chongqing's police chief, Wang Lijun, briefly sought asylum at the American consulate. Wang charged that his boss, Chongqing's Communist Party chief, Bo Xilai, and Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had arranged Heywood's death by poisoning. Their motivation, based on a confession by Gu, was that Heywood had threatened to expose the family's financial dealings and forcibly detained their son for a short time in London.

After a characteristically swift trial, Gu was convicted of the killing and was given a suspended death sentence. Bo, still awaiting trial, was relieved of his posts and expelled from the party. Wang was arrested after leaving the consulate, tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison for bending the law for selfish ends, abuse of power, defection, and taking bribes.

The scandal provided a glimpse of the tortuous road to power of China's elite. Despite the enormous effort by the party to control China's burgeoning social media, the country's bloggers, tweeters, and netizens of all stripes jumped avidly into the fray, along with their overseas counterparts.

One would have to agree with the authors that "the crisis triggered by Heywood's death reveals more about the scandalous state of corruption in China than any dissident or journalist could ever manage." It is also a story that those interested in China's role in the emerging world order ignore at their peril.

Pin Ho, one of the authors of this fascinating book, was heavily involved in the coverage of the Bo Xilai affair and provides the primary authorial voice, while journalist and translator Wenguang Huang supplies nuance and muscle to the writing and even did some undercover work.

 The real story behind the murder, the authors assert, grows from a power struggle pitting factions claiming the Maoist legacy of authoritarian power against a newer, less ideological, group seeking to leverage its connections to China's overheated economy to create a more diffuse - but even more corrosive and corrupt - arrangement of power.

Bo's tough stances on local corruption put him in the "Maoist" camp, though he, too, was accused of massive embezzlement and might, the authors suggest, have been framed for the murder, along with his wife, by his former police chief, Wang Lijun. Bo's convoluted relationship with former premier Wen Jiabao - allegedly one of China's wealthiest men - could fill a half-dozen books on its own.

The authors believe that Wang or one of his underlings might actually have suffocated Heywood to set up Gu and Bo but the evidentiary trail is so muddled that they can only speculate.

China's economy has been described as Darwinian. As this gripping book shows, its politics are no less so. The goal of China's leaders in the first decades of the new century has been to create the "harmonious society," in which dissent is minimized, separatism stifled, and the economy burns along at a frenetic pace. When the government shuts down a dissenting website, it is sardonically said by Chinese bloggers to have been "harmonized."

One could also say that the Bo Xilai affair represents a similar sacrifice to the new "harmony."

Charles Desnoyers is associate professor of history and director of Asian studies at La Salle University. His books include "A Journey to the East: Li Gui's 'A New Account of a Trip Around the Globe' " and "Patterns of World History" (with George Stow and Peter Von Sivers)