One day, in the early ’80s, at the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, I was playing Ping-Pong, brandishing my favorite red Double Happiness racket with exceptional speed and spin, trouncing schoolmates both known and unknown to me. As I was about to leave, a tall one asked if he could borrow my premium racket, and I agreed. That was the only encounter between me and Bo Xilai. I remember it not because his father was one of the most powerful Communist Party seniors in the Forbidden City but because he never returned the racket.
After graduation, I moved to the United States and eventually began writing detective stories set in Shanghai. As for Mr. Bo, I read that he was rising quickly in the party, no surprise for a “high cadre’s child” — what we now call a princeling — in China. I would never have guessed that, this spring, he would be expelled, accused of corruption, his wife investigated for murder, that rumors would swirl of his spying on members of the Politburo, on President Hu Jintao himself.
A few years ago he became the party secretary of Chongqing, a city of around 30 million in southwestern China. There he introduced the “Chongqing model,” in which populist economics, tough-on-crime policing and Maoist nostalgia were combined in an attempt to counteract the modern lack of social cohesion. The program had a slogan: “To sing the red, to crush the black.”
To “sing the red” referred to songs in praise of Mao and the Communist Party that Chongqing residents were once ordered to sing. To “crush the black” referred to Mr. Bo’s crackdown on organized crime. Some 5,000 people were arrested as a result, though determining whether they were truly “black” was largely left to those in power.
At first I was surprised by this nostalgia for the “red and black” of the Cultural Revolution. But two or three years ago, at a karaoke room during a trip to Shanghai, I was flabbergasted by the number of red songs being sung. For me, they do not bring back memories of a purer China but of Red Guards, who, in the name of the proletarian dictatorship, crushed those they saw as counterrevolutionary — the “black” ones like my father.
He was forced to turn in one confession after another, pleading guilty for being a “capitalist” before 1949. Once he had to write one from the hospital, blindfolded, while recovering from eye surgery. I penned the words for him. Another time, I stood beside him for hours, like a human crutch, while he posed under a portrait of Mao as a gesture of penitence, red songs playing in the background.
In the semidarkness of that karaoke room, while scantily clad waitresses popped in and out, I listened again to those songs. One girl giggled. “You know what! A sick man got well miraculously singing the red songs.” Apparently, Mr. Bo’s move to turn the clock back was gaining popularity.
Like the detective in my novels, I tried to figure out why. It was not that difficult. With increasing economic inequality, the bankruptcy of traditional ethics, the rise of unbridled materialism, the absolute power of the one-party system leading to absolute corruption, people were simmering with frustration and discontent. But where did Mr. Bo fit in? Somehow I did not see him as a true Maoist but as someone who believed in nothing except his personal interest.
This March, I made another trip to China. It was after Wang Lijun, Mr. Bo’s police chief, had fled to the American Consulate in a most dramatic move, and after Mr. Bo had been dismissed as the Chongqing party chief, but before he lost his seat on the Politburo and before we knew his wife was under investigation for the death of Neil Heywood, a British businessman. People everywhere were speculating about the scandal, rumors buzzing like flies at the smell of blood.
The day Mr. Bo was suspended from the Politburo, a friend of mine compared his downfall to that of Lin Biao, the famous Red Army commander who was eventually accused of plotting against Mao and died under mysterious circumstances. Except back then, the Chinese took the scandal seriously; everyone was worried about Mao and his safety. Now they compare the events unfolding in Chongqing to TV drama.
That same day, at lunch, before even the tea was served, my friends were talking in high spirits about the bizarre details in the case. Was Mr. Heywood murdered because he threatened to expose the Bos’ attempt to wire money out of the country? Could the huge wealth they amassed be taken back? Was it true that the way Mr. Bo fashioned himself after Mao, playing the role of his successor, alarmed the other top leaders and led to his ruin? All the scenarios spread out among the spicy dishes.
Indeed, life in China can be so much stranger than fiction. Murder, conspiracy, ambition, corruption. “You should write a book about it,” a young friend suggested over a cup of rice wine. An American friend had suggested that, too, but didn’t think it would work: “If you wrote a novel with a plot like what has happened, the publisher would surely have rejected it as being too crazy.”
One way or another, I’m sure some details of the Bo scandal will make it into my next book. After all, he still owes me my Ping-Pong racket. When he failed to return it, I remember thinking of a couple of lines from “The Book of Songs”: “All the land stretching out to the horizon, / belongs to his lord alone.” He believed that.
Qiu Xiaolong is the author of the forthcoming novel Don’t Cry, Tai Lake.