It has been called China’s biggest court case since the trial of the Gang of Four in the wake of the Cultural Revolution in 1980. Testimony in the trial of former high-level Chinese politician Bo Xilai touched on infidelity, embezzlement, and murder. And Harvard.
Among the claims presented at the trial, which ended Monday, was that a billionaire who bankrolled the Bo family’s lavish habits paid for plane tickets and hotel rooms for 40 students from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to visit China during their 2011 spring break.
Bo Xilai’s son, Bo Guagua, whose extravagant international lifestyle is said to have hurt his father’s image in China, earned a degree from the Kennedy School last year.
With the trial carefully stage-managed by the Chinese government and its transcripts censored, the truth is murky. But the claim, if even partially true, raises the question of whether the Kennedy School students may have been improperly influenced by the Bo family — and whether the university should have known about it.
Harvard says a Chinese student club at the Kennedy School organized a 2011 trip to China but that the university had nothing to do with planning it — and therefore cannot address the veracity of the trial testimony. But a spokesman pointed to a report in the British newspaper The Telegraph quoting students saying they paid their own way.
Bo, whose downfall is seen as the result of losing a power struggle within the Communist Party elite, is accused of accepting millions of dollars in bribes and attempting to cover up his wife’s cyanide poisoning of a British businessman over an investment deal gone sour. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, pleaded guilty and is now in prison for that murder.
Prosecutors last week presented testimony Gu gave last November. She described how the family used a Chinese billionaire, Xu Ming, as a piggy bank, according to government-issued transcripts. Xu paid for her son Guagua’s travel back and forth to Britain, where he went to prep school and then Oxford, and trips around the world, including a chartered plane to Mount Kilimanjaro.
As for the Kennedy School delegation, “over 40 of his classmates came to Beijing for a tour,” she testified. “All of their plane tickets and lodging expenses are paid by Xu Ming’s company.”
A Bo family assistant also testified that he booked a hotel for the group and that “all the related expenses” were covered by Xu’s company.
Several Harvard professors said spring break trips abroad are common among professional-school students.
“Because these graduate students plan the trips on their own and do not represent the school or the university, students use their own money or raise money independently to cover their individual expenses,” Kennedy School spokesman Doug Gavel said in an e-mail Tuesday.
Gavel acknowledged, however, that three of the 2011 trip’s organizers received “small grants” from the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, which houses the graduate school’s Asia programs.
That funding is in line with the Ash Center’s “objectives to support student-related activities with an Asia focus,” Gavel wrote. “These student-organized trips are designed to provide students with a deeper personal understanding of the culture of and challenges facing particular countries or regions.”
A Reuters report published last year cited unnamed students who described Bo Guagua as one of the organizers of the “China trek,” which included meetings with the central bank governor and commerce minister. The group was greeted by a police motorcade in Chongqing, the city where Bo Xilai was Communist Party boss.
But the report in The Telegraph quoted three participants who said they paid for their own travel.
The Globe could not reach any of the travelers on the 2011 trip, or anyone from the Chinese student group.
One possibility is that there were multiple sources of funding. A Facebook advertisement inviting students on a “2013 China Trek” in March said the cost of the trip was “partially subsidized by local hosts.”
The price for meals, hotels, and travel inside China — but not international flights — was listed at about $1,000 per person. The invitation said the trip would include interaction with high-level government officials, academic and business seminars, and tourist attractions.
Tun-Hou Lee, a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health who is from Taiwan and is critical of China’s ruling party, cautioned that it is not clear how much the trial testimony is to be believed. He said fund-raising for an educational trip is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on whether the motive of the funder is transparent.
“If I were one of the students, the first question I would raise is, what is the quid pro quo involved here?” he said.