Week in Review

The Party Photo that Made the Front Page of The New York Times

Yaou Liu ’14

On April 17, 2012, a long report that accompanied a party photo appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The young college student in the photo was Bo Guagua, the second son of Bo Xilai, one of the most influential Chinese politicians, and the only child of lawyer and businesswoman Gu Kailai. The couple has recently fallen from grace after Bo Xilai was purged by the Party while his wife was accused of the murder of a British businessman, Neil Haywood.

Bo Xilai’s dismissal received widespread international media coverage. His western-educated son, whose lifestyle has been a regular topic of public gossip and media fascination, received special attention after his father’s removal from office. Soon after the New York Times episode, the Wall Street Journal reported on Bo Guagua driving a luxury car and speeding while attending graduate school at Harvard University, MA.

The media’s attention on the Bos is rather rare given the usual portraits of the faceless and prudent Chinese politicians. To understand why the Bos, especially the college-aged son in the family, attracted such media coverage, it is important to examine the underlying subtext of the Chinese political arena.

Bo Xilia was a highly visible political figure in China, which made him stand out among his colleagues. Unlike U.S. politicians, who strive for popularity among their constituents to get elected, Chinese politicians rising to power rely much less on open votes. Under such circumstances, one’s top priority is not answering to the constituents, instead staying humble and low-key is the rule of thumb.

Coming from a high-profile “Red” family, Bo Xilai inherited the legacy of his father. His father, Bo Yibo, was one of the founders of the People’s Republic of China and played an important role in steering Chinese politics away from Mao’s legacy and transferring China into an economic powerhouse. Following in his father’s steps, Bo Xilai came to prominence through his tenure as the mayor of the coastal economic hub of Dalian and then governor of Liaoning province. During those years, Bo Xilai crafted himself into a people-loving mayor/governor, enforcing many policies that directly benefited people’s livelihoods, winning him wide popularity and visibility. From 2004 to November 2007, Bo served as Minister of Commerce and in 2007 he was appointed head of the Communist Party’s Chongqing branch. Bo’s style persisted throughout his political career. Because of his reputation that was one of a kind in the Party, it is not accident that his fall from grace received much media attention.

In the case of Bo Guagua, the 25-year-old son who spent his high school and college careers in England and is now attending graduate school at Harvard, the family “tragedy” put him in the spotlight. Traditionally, the Chinese concept of family differs from that of western families in that family members are bound together more closely and social structures rely on family connections. “Fu Er Dai,” or second generation of rich family, and “Guan Er Dai,” or children of governmental officials, are the terms designated to the group of young people whose parents are rich or have political power. With such parents, children enjoy privileges brought by the family wealth or connection that their peers envy. Bo Guagua, as a typical “Guan Er Dai,” enjoy the privilege of a western education and lifestyle, shown in the party pictures, that is a luxury to most Chinese youth, showcasing the widening disparity of wealth in China and grievances related to this.

China’s politics have been difficult for western audiences to comprehend. Different from a democratic regime, the governmental power structure is skewed by its sophisticated social condition and long history. In the case of Bo’s dismissal, so many factors played into the scheme that fascinates the media. With the above clarifications laid out, hopefully it is somewhat easier for readers to wade through the substantial amount of media coverage on the incident.