New York Times London Bureau Chief John Burns on a story of China, corruption, intrigue, murder, and an English businessman
HH: Extraordinary story in the New York Times yesterday about an unfolding epic scandal in the People’s Republic of China. The co-author of it, along with Sharon LaFraniere, is John Burns, of course the London Bureau Chief of the New York Times, with the New York Times for 38 years, I believe, and formerly the bureau chief in Beijing. John Burns, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show. It’s always a pleasure to have you.
JB: Likewise. Likewise.
HH: You know, the couple of years, or three years you spent in China, did not end well. I discovered that when researching this story for today. Would you tell people about your time in Beijing and what happened at the end?
JB: Well, I’d had quite a few years in China, and I ended up being arrested for spying, and put into the Peking Central Prison, not for very long, but it was serious. I mean, they had painted on the wall opposite my cell in big character letters and painted red, the penalty for spying in China is death. The whole thing was a charade. I knew it to be a charade. The interrogators and prison guards knew it to be a charade. And it would take more time than we have tonight for me to explain what I think really happened, but the ostensible cause of this was that I made a long motorcycle trip of a couple of thousand kilometers across China to take a look at the real China that was emerging in the late 80s, in the period after Mao Tse Tung, and the period when the economic boom that we now see in full force was just beginning, to see how this was changing the shape of China, the life of the peasants. 80% of China’s population then lived in the countryside. I didn’t try to disguise who I was. I rode a motorbike, and I stayed, even, in police and army bases at night. But in any case, they chose to construe this as spying, and I ended up in a prison cell. And then thanks to the intervention of President Nixon, by then living in retirement in San Clemente, who wrote a letter to the Chinese leaders, Nixon had come to know me in one of this post-presidential trips to China, we got along quite well, and 5:00 in the morning about three hours after the American ambassador delivered Mr. Nixon’s letter, I was summoned from my cell, asked to change out of my prison uniform into my own clothes, put in front of a television camera where I was denounced for my spying, and told that the state council, which in our terms would be the government of China, had decided in the interest of good relationships with the United States to deport me. So they took me to the airport, put me on a military plane, still shackled, flew me to Hong Kong. And that’s about it.
HH: Well John Burns, that’s a remarkable story. I’m going to be at the Nixon Library tomorrow night. I never knew the Nixon angle of it. I just brought it up because I wanted my audience to know that when we discuss Mr. Bo, you do so from the very unique perspective of having been in the grips of the Chinese so-called justice system, though it was a few decades ago, and probably are appreciating the position Mr. Bo is in tonight, and his accused wife. Let’s go to that story, and we’ve got two and a half minutes to the break, and ten minutes afterwards. Tell people about what is really, I think, one of the most fascinating things I’ve seen out of China in many, many years?
JB: Well, of course what we see here is something that none of us really wanted to see at all, and I’m not talking about the murder. That, of course, we would all regret. What we’re seeing is a new upheaval in the Chinese political leadership, the most important political purge in Bo Xilai, the former Chongquing party chief, candidate for the inner sanctum of power in the politburo. And this is very disturbing to those who had hoped, believed, perhaps, that China, this is a new China, the post-Mao China, which was heading toward a period of political stability, the rule of law, in other words, had really put the Mao era, the Cultural Revolution, the chaos, the great leap forward, and all the rest of it, behind it. What we’re seeing now in this very sordid tale is something much more like what we saw of Chinese leadership in what we, and indeed, I think most Chinese would describe as the bad old days of Mao Tse Tung, a politics that is much more personal, that is much more brutal. Let’s not forget that in the Cultural Revolution in China under Mao, millions, I think the Chinese officially concluded ten million people, died. Now it’s not to suggest that China’s heading for that. The present Chinese leadership who purged Bo are saying, in fact, that it’s to prevent that kind of…return to that kind of politics, that they’ve purged him. But then you have the question of the alleged murder. As you know…
HH: When we come back from break, let’s hold that for the break. Neil Heywood is the dead Brit, John Burns is the London Bureau Chief of the New York Times. His story, along with Sharon LaFraniere and Jonathan Ansfield, is Death Of A Briton Is Thrust To Center Of China Scandal. Go and read it. We’ll talk about it when we come back from break.
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HH: A Brit, 41 year old businessman Neil Heywood, was murdered in November, and arrested in connection with that, the wife of a senior, or at least he was a senior until yesterday, politburo leader, Bo Xilai. So John Burns, pick up the story. When did you begin to become aware that this dispatch of the 41 year old English businessman would lead to this kind of an upheaval, the P word, the purge?
JB: Well, the story begins in mid to late November when, and at that time, the world knew nothing about it. Neil Heywood, a 41 year old private school educated Englishman of some personal charm, went to Chongqing, the capitol city of Sichuan Province in Southwest China, source of the wonderful hot food that we all like in Chinese restaurants, and on some sort of a business trip. He had for some years, we now know, had a very unusual personal relationship with the family of Bo Xilai, the Communist Party chief in Chongqing, and that relationship seemed to be centered very much on Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, a 53 year old rather handsome woman from her photographs, daughter of a retired, probably now dead, revolutionary general under Mao Tse Tung. This was Communist royalty. Long story short, Neil Heywood ends up dead in his hotel room in Chongqing. The Chinese report to his family that he died of over consumption of alcohol. They report that they’ve cremated him without autopsy. The family, the Heywood family, appears to have accepted this, and that includes Mr. Neil Heywood’s Chinese wife and two children living in Beijing. The next stage was that the police chief of Sichuan Province, the closest personal aide, if you will, to Mr. Bo, the party chief, having reported so it is now said, to Bo Xilai, that Heywood didn’t die of over consumption of alcohol. He died of poisoning, and that the poisoner, or at least the one who organized the poisoning, was none other than Bo’s own wife, Gu Kailai.
JB: At this point, we enter into a story that, you know, if it was written as part of a Chinese legend, would stretch credulity. Wang, the police chief, is then stripped of his powers, and in fear of his life, flees to the United States consulate in Chengdu, another very big city in Sichuan Province, seeks asylum, and tells this extraordinary story about how Mrs. Bo has murdered this English businessman. The United States diplomats refused him asylum. That’s another complicated story, but it’s a fairly common practice, and effectively put him out of the door where he was arrested by Chinese security agents, that is to say the police chief, and take him to Beijing. We’ve heard nothing of him since. The big development was that yesterday, that’s to say Tuesday, in China, the Chinese leadership announced, having…through the foreign ministry and other agencies, insisted since November that Mr. Heywood died of alcohol poisoning, or alternatively of a heart attack, suddenly says no, he didn’t, he was murdered, he was poisoned, and we have arrested Mrs. Bo Xilai, the wife of the Communist Party chief, the daughter of the revolutionary general for complicity and the murder, along with an orderly from the Bo family’s household. All of this accompanying the official purge of Bo Xilai from all party positions. So what we have is a tremendous turn in the politics of China, and it seems to center, this scandal’s center on the death of this Englishman. And it’s left to people like myself to now go in pursuit of what the real story behind all of this was.
HH: Oh, it’s a sort of a Black Dahlia, or…and I’m trying to find a parallel in United States politics for Bo Xilai as I understand it. It would be like, if it was a Democrat, an Andrew Cuomo, or a Republican, a Paul Ryan, a rising leader who was assumed to be on the way to the top in one way or the other.
JB: To the very top. To the very top.
HH: So what does it do to the internal…there’s a division that Henry Kissinger explained at length in On China between the tigers and the go-along to get along people.
HH: Do you think there’s an implication from this story for that competition, which of course concerns our countries greatly?
JB: It does indeed. It does in the sense I already explained, which was that it’s very disturbing in terms of what it tells us about stability in China. Let’s remember, this is a country which is widely judged to be on its way to being the economic superpower of the 21st Century. It engaged in rapid expansion of its military to the extent that the Obama Administration felt obliged to station 2,500 Marines in Australia to, in effect, to stiffen the American presence in Asia against the rising power of China. So that’s the one thing, is how much can we trust this new China? The second thing is in terms of Chinese domestic politics. Bo Xilai, a very complicated story, and to all accounts, a very corrupt man, a man who has pocketed millions, sends his son off to a very expensive private education abroad, rumored, this boy, to at one point have been driving around Chongqing in a red Ferrari, presently enrolled at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. So Bo is a very complex character, because he’s also the tribune of those in China who say much of what has happened in the last 30 years has been a mistake, this get rich quick stuff, we’ve got to turn back the clock to the Cultural Revolution, we’ve got to get the state capitalism, get control of that. This free enterprise is out of hand. This is a determined, ambitious appeal to a larger constituency in China who have not benefited very much from all of the free marketeering of recent years. So almost any way you approach this, this is an event of momentous proportions.
HH: And what a story, and it’s just begun to be told in the New York Times by John Burns and his colleagues. I would recommend it to everyone, and Mr. Burns, we hope you’ll come back soon. Thanks for spending time with us tonight. I know you’re on a deadline, and we very much appreciate.
End of interview.