China's Local Tyrants
  • Wed, 03/28/2012 - 21:39

Updated March 27, 2012, 5:25 p.m. ET

China's political system is one of the world's most opaque, but periods of internal struggle offer glimpses into the ways power is exercised in the People's Republic. The fall this month of Bo Xilai, the party secretary of Chongqing and aspirant to one of the Communist Party's top posts, is proving to be a case in point. The Journal has broken several stories in recent days reporting evidence that Mr. Bo was a law unto himself, mirroring the behavior of party secretaries in smaller cities and towns whose rapaciousness has sparked civil unrest.

Most shocking is the suspicious death of Neil Heywood, a British businessman. After a business dispute with Mr. Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, he was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room. The cause was attributed to alcohol poisoning, but Heywood didn't drink. The body was hastily cremated without an autopsy.

The local police chief, Wang Lijun, believed Heywood was poisoned, and this contributed to a falling out with Mr. Bo. Mr. Wang briefly sought asylum in the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu and then was taken into custody by central government authorities. The British government has asked for a full investigation into Heywood's death.

Mr. Wang directed a crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing that Chinese legal experts criticized for playing fast and loose with the law. Other commentators accused Mr. Bo of using the sweep as a cover to put in place mafia leaders loyal to himself. Business people have alleged that they were accused of being gangsters so that their assets could be expropriated.

A few of these tycoons have considerable political clout themselves. For instance, Zhang Mingyu is a delegate to the National People's Congress, but that didn't stop the Chongqing police from detaining him in Beijing during the legislature's session earlier this month. Mr. Zhang says he has information to prove Police Chief Wang's collusion with the head of organized crime in the city, who also runs the largest financial firm. Li Jun, a businessman who lost his $700 million company and now lives abroad, says he was tortured by the police and military for three months for a false confession.

Sorting truth from recrimination is difficult amid any power struggle, but it's possible all of this is true given the unchecked power that Chinese political leaders wield. As alarming as these experiences are, they are also the norm rather than the exception across China. The sense that officials no longer feel any restraint has created profound unease among entrepreneurs, who are moving a portion of their wealth and even their family members out of the country.

China's new leaders may deplore such abuses and point to the downfall of the perpetrators as proof that anticorruption campaigns are working. But here again Mr. Bo's case is instructive. All signs point to the fact that a political battle was raging behind the scenes even before Mr. Wang sought refuge in the U.S. Consulate. Had it not been for his powerful enemies at the center who were determined to prevent his rise, Mr. Bo could have gone on harassing Chongqing's legitimate and criminal enterprises at will.

Mr. Li and others have called the Communist Party's takeover of business a new "red terror." In truth it represents a continuation of the party's modus operandi since 1949, preventing any group from amassing power or wealth that could challenge its pre-eminence in every realm. The only reason we know how Mr. Bo played this game is that somebody higher up saw him as a challenge.