CAMBRIDGE, Mass./BEIJING/LONDON (Reuters) - Bo Guagua, a 24-year-old descendant of Chinese Communist royalty, seemed destined to one day become a rich and powerful businessman in an economy that in his lifetime would become the world’s largest.
His pedigree, elite schooling, easy confidence and connections left those who knew him in no doubt he would pursue a business career and amass a fortune.
That was until a British expatriate, Neil Heywood, died last November in a hotel in a huge city in western China, a world away from the clipped lawns and hushed libraries of Harvard University where Bo was studying. The story now looks certain to ruin his family and upend his ambitions.
People are no longer sure of young Bo’s fate: return to his family in China, seek asylum in the United States, or other options.
“Now he is an orphan,” a source close to Bo’s family said.
Late Friday, the UK Daily Telegraph reported that Bo Guagua, pulling a roller suitcase, slipped out of his apartment building late on Thursday night, in a pre-arranged pickup by law-enforcement officers.
Bo Guagua’s mother, Gu Kailai, has been detained on suspicion of murdering Heywood, who for years had close ties to the Bo family. His father, Bo Xilai, one of China’s most charismatic and ambitious politicians, has been stripped of all his roles within the top echelons of the Chinese communist party.
The young man’s family connections, which can be traced to his grandfather Bo Yibo, a revolutionary comrade of Mao Zedong, are now seen as poisonous rather than profitable in a country where personal relationships, or guanxi, are often the key to success.
Bo Guagua could not be contacted, and the status of his postgraduate career at Harvard, where he has been studying for a master’s degree, is uncertain. University officials have declined to comment, citing their strict privacy policies.
Harvard classmates and others who know Bo from China and Oxford say he is not the quiet type: He likes socializing and has at times neglected his studies, much to his parents’ displeasure. He has also shown a fondness for luxury cars, once chauffeuring an American girl, the daughter of a diplomat, around Beijing in a Ferrari.
While at Balliol College, Oxford, from 2007, Bo Guagua gained a reputation as a party boy. He was “rusticated” - effectively suspended - for 12 months for academic reasons, said a source familiar with his Oxford days. Some Chinese diplomats even visited the university, northwest of London, to check on his progress, the source added.
Oxford University officials had no comment.
In an interview published in the Chinese press in 2009, Bo gushed about Oxford and revealed his secret for maintaining a strong mix of pleasure and study - to sleep only four to five hours a night. He quoted an old Chinese saying, “A slow bird should make an early start.”
In 2010, a year later than expected, Bo graduated with high marks in politics, philosophy, and economics.
One Oxford academic said Bo came across as having the kind of keen intelligence that would have enabled him to keep up his course work while finding plenty of time to have fun. The academic recalled Bo as ambitious, sharp and argumentative.
Bo Guagua’s name surfaces only sporadically in public accounts of Oxford student life, but what little there is shows drive and at times a sense of responsibility.
According to the independent Oxford student newspaper Cherwell, Bo was runner-up in the contest for Librarian - the de facto head - of the Oxford Union, an illustrious debating society that counts several British prime ministers among its former office holders.
He also once lead the PPE Society, another debating group, reflecting his interests in philosophy, politics and economic. In 2008 the society was part of a joint effort to raise relief funds for those affected by a devastating earthquake in China’s Sichuan province, which killed an estimated 68,000 people.
A smiling photograph on Bo’s infrequently used public Facebook page shows him at Oxford, wearing a pink T-shirt. The page lists his date of birth as December 17, 1987.
Bo appears to have left a smaller footprint at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he has been studying public policy. Part of the class of 2012 in the two-year program, he is due to graduate in May after final exams.
Bo’s university directory page lists his work experience as a 2009 stint with China’s Yichun County government and an internship with the Chinese Ministry of Education that same year. Also during his Oxford years he is listed as founder of Beijing-based Guagua Internet Company (2009-2010), which appears to be defunct.
He has also been developing a social network, www.guagua.com, though it has yet to be launched, said a Chinese businessman who knows him well.
“He wants to make a billion dollars and be politically important,” the businessman said.
Harvard spokesman Doug Gavel would not comment on how Bo Guagua was financing his expensive graduate studies - just the latest in more than a decade of study abroad. Media reports suggest Bo Guagua’s education has been bankrolled by a Chinese billionaire businessman. His family has said he received scholarships to various institutions.
On its website, Harvard estimates that expenses for the upcoming academic year for international students at the Kennedy School would come to about $70,000, “based upon conservative estimates of living expenses.”
Bo’s lifestyle has seemed far removed from the austerity experienced by many graduate students.
A Harvard source said he believed Bo lived in “The Residences at Charles Square,” an upscale condominium building near the school, though this could not be confirmed. The building overlooks the Charles River and has views of downtown Boston. A three-bedroom apartment there recently fetched $1.8 million, while rents for two-bedroom apartments are around $3,700 a month.
Student sources say Bo took an active role in organizing a 2011 “China Trek” for Kennedy students, where the contingent of graduate students met dignitaries such as Central Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan and Commerce Minister Chen Deming.
The trekkers visited Chongqing, where Bo Xilai was then head of the Communist Party, and were surprised to be greeted by a police motorcade. “Everyone knew he was somebody important because of the meetings he arranged and also the long police escort. That was really surprising,” a classmate said.
In the current academic year, Bo won a grant from the school’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation to work with fellow student Jennifer Choi on a project called “Transparency and Engagement Solutions for Nonprofits in China.”
Choi, a candidate for a joint MBA/Kennedy School degree, is an intern in the fashion industry. She did not respond to emailed questions.
In an email, Anthony Saich, director of the Ash Center and a professor of international affairs, deferred to university policy in declining to comment further.
On a typical Thursday, Bo would have been in Saich’s class - “The Political Economy of Transition in China” - studying the country he has lived in only sporadically since leaving at age 12 to study at British boarding schools Papplewick and Harrow before going on to Oxford.
Fellow Harvard students say Bo has not been seen around lately.
At the end of March, Bo wrote the Times of London, asking the British media to leave him out of politics and let him focus on his studies. “Regardless of the current state of affairs, I have only the hope that China continues on a path of smooth transition,” the paper quoted him as saying in an email.
Reporting by Bill Maclean in London, Adam Tanner and Ros Krasny in Cambridge, Mass., Chris Buckley, Lucy Hornby, Benjamin Lim and Melanie Lee in Beijing; Writing by Ros Krasny; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Prudence Crowther