By any standard, including the misguided behavior of Western elitists, Bo Guagua is a bon vivant with a penchant for sports cars, equestrian sports, alcohol and women. His father Bo Xilai, faces charges in China of corruption and abuse of power in what has become a case receiving worldwide attention. His mother, Gu Kailai, is accused of murdering a British businessman who was allegedly her lover. And now his father is accused of wiretapping top officials. This has all the earmarks of a tabloid story that keeps giving.
While mom and dad are up to their respective earlobes in rumor, publicity and court cases, Bo Guagua’s high living has raised a number of interesting questions. Why was this young man accepted at Harvard when his academic record was undistinguished and friends described his student performance as lackadaisical? Moreover, his antics before and during his college years were emblematic of a cocksure attitude inconsistent with the conservative standards of the Chinese Communist Party.
Most of the details of Bo’s life were public. He appeared on a Chinese talk show to discuss his family and allowed himself to be photographed bare-chested with young women at his side. His father was often asked how his modest government salary could support his son’s expensive tastes. But despite claims of a “full” scholarship at Harvard, that does not appear to be the case and he has been seen driving a red Ferrari and a Porsche near the Cambridge campus raising many doubts about his father’s contentions.
Bo failed to get into the Harrow, despite claims he studied for a year for the entrance examination. In 2006 he arrived at Oxford’s Balliol College pursuing a degree in politics and economics, but was best known for his “professional socializing.” In fact, his professors forced him to take a set of exams known as “penal collections.” He failed and was suspended for a year. Somewhat later, Bo took his final exams and passed “much to people’s surprise,” a professor noted. But his tutors refused to write a recommendation for his Harvard application. Nonetheless, he was admitted to the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The question that remains unanswered is whether Bo’s family connection played a role in his admission. There is, of course, a larger policy issue that must be addressed: do universities modify their admissions criteria for the children of well known personalities? There have been questions raised about the acceptance of Rafsanjani’s son at the London School of Economics and a host of claims about the Kennedy boys at Harvard.
Some might suggest these decisions are not unlike “legacy” admissions at Ivy League colleges or football scholarships at Ohio State. What is troubling is, notwithstanding arguments to the contrary, money and reputation count for more than anyone will admit. There is a part of me that wants a fair and transparent meritocratic standard applied to all, but I realize that, at a time institutions are scrambling for financial assistance, one appropriate filter for all applicants may not work.
In Bo’s case, his flamboyance and seeming lack of seriousness grates. Why should this family of Communist Party pioneers, who presumably opposed Western standards, defend a profligate son who exhibits the extremes of bourgeois life? There is a wonderful irony in this story that will undoubtedly receive a lot of press ink, but for those denied admission to Harvard it won’t diminish the disappointment. Why should Mr. Bo make it, when we cannot is a refrain that will undoubtedly appear and reappear. Who can blame those denied acceptance with solid academic criteria?