Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Muddle That Is The BBC’s “Murder in the Lucky Holiday Hotel”

Reporting on Chinese politics is challenging, whether it’s by examining Chinese media or interviewing the odd if often unwilling official. But it’s crucial to look at how political events happen here and why--especially by seeing matters as Chinese officials see them, and thereby avoid the simplifications that usually plague understanding of politics in China.

A recent BBC podcast series, Murder in the Lucky Holiday Hotel, is being praised by many as a riveting inside examination of Chinese politics gone wrong—the story of Bo Xilai, “China’s most charismatic politician”, according to Carrie Gracie, the podcast’s narrator and the BBC’s China news editor in Beijing. The series looks at the killing of British expatriate Neil Heywood in Chongqing in 2011--“the murder which changed the course of Chinese politics,” according to Gracie.

But the podcast isn’t enthralling or insightful. Instead of being a sophisticated re-examination of a major event, the listener receives a grotesque rendering of Chinese politics, replete with stereotypes and suppositions. This is a podcast that isn’t meant to inform so much as arouse—China analysis at its worst. 

There’s so much that’s wrong with this retelling that it’s difficult to know where to start.

One problem is that Bo’s fall isn’t a new story by any means, having been exhaustively reported as it happened, and since. Indeed, the title of the podcast is very nearly a direct copy of the name of a 2013 book by two Hong Kong analysts, A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel. It’s not at all clear why the BBC is revisiting the story, especially since no sudden insights are provided that weren’t speculated about before, and the story itself is years old. Apart from some new information about the actions of Bo’s wife, Gu Kaili in England, and further conjecture that Neil Haywood gave information to British intelligence, what’s presented is what’s already been known for years by those who followed the case then.

The major reason for the retelling may well be that the BBC wants to make the mundane melodramatic. We’re continually informed by Gracie that this is “the story that changed China,” that “it changed history.” At the same time, the listener is advised that:

“There are so many things we don’t know about it, and that’s because there are no heroes in it, only victims and villains. And it’s a descent into the dark heart of Chinese politics which is dangerous, and that being the case, most of the people know the story—dead, in jail, or unwilling to talk.”

That theme—that this was a daring story to report—recurs throughout the podcast:

“The Communist party doesn’t want us to report this story and it’s done it’s best to scare us off.”

“Like almost everyone else, [British officials] don’t want me asking questions.”

“We were followed; our phone calls were bugged; our emails were hacked; and the Communist party propaganda department[1] got to everyone, including our one and only interviewee, before we did.”

In other words, the Chinese government is engaged in a conspiracy to stop someone reporting a story that was told and concluded half a decade ago. But what Gracie presents isn’t news because it ceased to be new long ago. And there’s nothing very daring about reporting it, because China has moved on, even if some at the BBC haven’t.

A second issue plaguing the podcast is its depiction of Chinese elites. Gracie doesn’t characterize Chinese officials; she caricatures them.

For example, Gracie claims that Gu Kaili, Bo’s wife, used family connections to gains admission into Peking University. There’s no evidence how Gu got in, because no one has access to that sort of information. It's speculation presented as solid fact. And the claim fits into Gracie’s narrative that Gu “wasn’t just a survivor, she was a striver.”

In the same vein, Gracie makes much of Gu’s personal life, citing people who say that Gu was “petite, elegant, expensively dressed and always willing to please” and that she also had a “long list of lovers”, referring to Gu as a “red apricot [红杏出墙]—Chinese slang for an adulteress. Gu’s political views aren’t discussed, and her highly successful law practice is referred to only very briefly. Gu becomes the femme fatale in this telling, someone who not only murdered Neil Heywood but, Gracie implies, also very possibly took him as her lover.

Salacious? Sure, for some. Adding insight to how China actually operates? Hardly, especially when the evidence for such claims is so thin and the re-telling smacks of sexism.

There’s also Wang Lijun, the Chongqing police chief who answered to Bo Xilai and whose attempted defection kicked off a chain of events that helped produce Bo’s downfall. Wang is described as “the gun-toting narcissist who fled to the Americans disguised as an old woman”. Never mind that Wang went to the British consulate first and was turned away—a fascinating and unexplained part of the saga that Gracie doesn't bother to mention. Nor does the podcast note Wang’s demotion by Bo days before he tried to flee. For Gracie, it’s apparently crucial for the podcast to present Wang simply as someone with a personality problem.

And then there’s Bo Xilai, a complex politician as there ever was in China. In the podcast he’s described as “tall”, “handsome”, “charismatic”, and spending much of his time engaged in sexual affairs and picking up supermodels—a “sex machine”, according to Gracie. She does admit that when Bo ran Chongqing (a city that Gracie says featured “mobsters, money, guns, gambling, prostitutes, and corruption”) “his charisma and personality somehow connect[ed] to the common man.” But apart from the discussion of his tenure in Chongqing, Bo is presented in the podcast mostly as a phallic symbol instead of a political official.

Interestingly (perhaps tellingly), Neil Heywood is pretty much the only person in the story who isn’t portrayed as exotic in some way. Instead, he’s presented as “tall, elegant…[someone who] reinvented himself as a business consultant”, the British fixer who made things happen for Bo and Gu—an astonishing statement given that Bo was a major political force for decades and Gu by many accounts a brilliant and powerful lawyer. Heywood may have offered Bo and Gu companionship or friendship or even amusement, but the notion that they needed him to make things happen for them is nonsense. Gracie says that Heywood got their son into Harrow, where evidently there aren't any admission procedures, just back doors for British expat business consultants. And that Heywood is cast as Gu’s victim--poisoned after he allegedly threatened to reveal information about her activities--allows the podcast to avoid any discussion of Heywood’s own personality and motivations. Apparently, it’s only the Chinese in this story who are different and act strangely.

There’s another shortcoming in the podcast:  How Chinese politics itself is portrayed. That’s the topic for the next post.

[1] This is a strange statement. Is Gracie confused? It’s the Ministry of State Security that oversees the comings and goings of foreign journalists on the ground, often in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the nominal body of oversight. The Department of Propaganda has nothing to do with the surveillance of journalists or potential interviewees here in China.
Also, every reporter in China encounters this attention from authorities. Gracie tries to hype these efforts at interference in her story, but it's standard fare for journalists operating in China, no matter what the subject.

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