Heywood murder scandal claims Xi’s main rival

When Xi Jinping, the vice president of China and its presumed next leader, returned from a crucial image-polishing tour of the US in February, he faced an even more delicate matter at home.

A former Chinese police chief had recently shown up at a US consulate, offering what he said was evidence of the murder of a British businessman by the wife of another top Chinese politician, Bo Xilai. Xi, 58, took part in weeks of secret negotiations over the fate of Bo, whose father, like that of Xi, had been a powerful figure in the Communist Party. The two sons are “princelings”.

But despite their similar backgrounds, Xi sided with top leaders in deciding to remove Bo from his position as party chief of the city of Chongqing, according to interviews with officials and people in Beijing with high-level party ties.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Xi did not take the lead, these insiders say. In keeping with his political style, he stayed in the background while supporting a process that removed a man who had threatened to become his biggest rival in the next group of Chinese leaders. Bo, 62, was a loud, charismatic politician pushing Maoist nostalgia in an attempt to get on the party’s nine-person Politburo Standing Committee, which rules China by consensus. People in Beijing say he might have sought to eclipse Xi if he had made it, and so Xi is emerging from the scandal with greater standing as China’s once-a-decade leadership transition enters its final months.

“Xi will benefit from this,” said a former Chinese ambassador now working in the foreign ministry, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. “It will make his situation much easier.”

The party said this month that it was investigating Bo for “serious disciplinary violations,” and his wife, Gu Kailai, in connection with the murder of Neil Heywood, the British businessman who died in Chongqing last November. The scandal poses the biggest challenge to the party elite since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

But as investigations continue, the party is moving quickly to ensure that the leadership transition stays on course. In June, about 400 senior party members, including those in the Central Committee, are expected to meet in Beijing to set a date in the autumn for the 18th Party Congress, when the new Standing Committee will be finalised. After the June meeting, intense horse-trading over the committee seats will enter its endgame, perhaps at a secret meeting in July, or possibly at an August retreat in the seaside town of Beidaihe.

The party has begun naming the more than 2,000 delegates to the Party Congress, observers say, and the pressure is on to decide Bo’s fate swiftly. “The timing and impact of this investigation is a very pressing matter, with the 18th Party Congress approaching,” said an academic with high-level ties.

No matter what happens, Xi is almost certain to take over the titles held by President Hu Jintao, while one of Hu’s protégés, Li Keqiang, is expected to succeed Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Despite Xi’s expected promotions to party secretary and president, many political observers expect Hu to remain head of the Central Military Commission for up to two years, as did his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

The rest of the Standing Committee seats will be divvided up between the two main factions in China’s system of power patronage: that of Hu, and that of Jiang, who is a supporter of Xi.

Xi has not commented directly on Bo’s case. But Seeking Truth, an important party magazine, printed an earlier speech of his the day after Bo was dismissed from his post in March. “Strict discipline is a strong guarantee for the maintenance of the purity of the party,” Xi said.