x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

China's Watergate

China's unfolding political scandal reminds us of another made-for-Hollywood tale 40 years ago, when five amateurish burglars led to the downfall of a US president.

For China analysts, it is the gift that just keeps on giving. The Bo Xilai scandal has seen the former Chongqing party boss cast out of politics, while his wife Gu Kailai has been arrested on charges of murdering a British business associate, Neil Heywood. To make it even juicier, Ms Gu is rumoured to have been engaged in an adulterous affair with Heywood.

The latest wrinkle is a New York Times report yesterday that indicates Mr Bo's string of bad luck might be linked to factional politics rather than just a case of murder and corruption. Apparently Mr Bo had been wiretapping senior Communist Party officials, including President Hu Jintao, in further evidence of the Machiavellian politics just under the surface of China's one-party state.

The facade of imperturbability, firmly in place since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, has been badly shaken. More evidence that the scandal is a product of partisan politicking will certainly have ramifications as China prepares for its once-in-a-decade transfer of power this fall.

That single thread of Heywood's death, almost unnoticed when it happened in November, has since unravelled many of China's political fictions. The possible consequences remind us of another political scandal 40 years ago and halfway around the world when the 1972 arrest of five amateurish burglars led to Richard Nixon's resignation from the US presidency two years later. These plot lines take time to mature. While Mr Bo's career is dead, his scandal now has a life of its own.