The fall of Bo Xilai presents an unexpected opportunity for Britain

11 September 2013

There are two ways of looking at the fall of former Politburo member Bo Xilai and his final trial and sentencing in August and September. The first has been discussed almost exhaustively - and relates to the meaning of Bo's fall within China, what it tells us about the political system there, and what light it sheds on the operations of power in the country now, revealing how it has evolved and changed over the last few decades.

The second however, has been much less attended to. That is to pay attention to what Bo's fall shows about us - the many outside China who were connected or involved either with Bo or with those in his circle. The includes the tragic Neil Heywood, the British businessman it is claimed Bo's wife, Gu Kailai killed. In particular, this case tells us a lot about how Britain relates to China.

Bo was indisputably one of the most popular figures in contemporary China among foreign leaders and visitors. This was helped by his decent English language skills and the fact that his son and wife were frequent visitors, in particular to the UK, where his son went to secondary school and university. Bo was as Anglophile as any of the leaders around him, the majority of whom, if they had children abroad, tend to send them to the US (this includes President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, both of whom had daughters studying there). If the UK had a man who understood them in the Chinese political elite, then Bo was it. For this reason, his demise is distressing to many in the British establishment who cultivated and were close to him.

This has given the fallout from the trial of his wife Gu, and of himself, particular piquancy for Britain. It has shown that the Communist system in China with its ingrained love of hierarchy and power-structures, and its deep investment in secrecy and opacity, is worryingly compatible with the UK, which remains, in very different ways, a system with a profound love of hierarchy but also with an equally strong attachment to secrecy.

Bo was lauded by many members of the political and business elite in the UK when he was in power, particularly when he was minister of trade up to 2007. He was courted and his son well looked after by figures in Britain, some of who have been named in the last few months as more details of Heywood's case in particular have come to light. One of the most interesting issues has been the way in which many of these figures fell silent, and in some cases condemned Bo when his fortune ran out.

For all its internal issues, many of which have been revealing and fascinating, one of the most truly informative aspects of Bo's fall has been to raise some badly neglected questions about the way in which the UK cultivates and engages with China. It has shown that despite China's immense economic importance, dealings with the country (at least at official level) remain in many ways the preserve of an elite, who battle for privileged access to a small and often inaccessible leadership in China, and who protect access to this fiercely. It is a game for which only a few are politically and even financially equipped to engage in. One of the most intriguing aspects of Heywood's case was the way in which he was clearly invading this territory and irritating those who felt it was somehow owned by them. His closeness to such a major political figure was regarded with jealousy: there was almost a sniffy schadenfreude at his demise, as though this were to be expected of someone venturing out of their depth.

We can do little about the way the Chinese have handled the issue within China, and in any case, there are good arguments to say that this is their business, and best we keep out. But about how Britain can reflect a bit more deeply on our modes of dealing with China and with the political elite there in ways which are more progressive, transparent and equitable, we can do something. The outdated and outmoded universe of elite leadership lobbying that the UK has grown over fond of, and which the Bo and Heywood case shows the tragic limitations of, should now be reformed and eschewed. There needs to be more open diplomacy with China, and more transparency around the architecture of that engagement. We are fond of crying foul on the vested interests operating in China. Now is a good chance to clean up something that exists in our own backyard. This is the unexpected opportunity that Bo's fall and sentencing offers us.