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The Bo Xilai Trial: What’s It Really About?

China has charged disgraced senior politician Bo Xilai with bribery, abuse of power and corruption, paving the way for a potentially divisive trial. But what’s at stake goes beyond the fate of one allegedly corrupt official: Is it really a fight between factions in the Communist Party?  

In the South China Morning Post, Jerome Cohen suggests that there may be many political landmines along the way to prosecution:

“Party leaders, whatever their views on constitutionalism and judicial independence, might easily disagree about the detailed issues that prosecution involves. Should Bo only be charged with bribery, abuse of power and embezzlement, as the ‘internal report’ indicates? What kind of ‘public’ trial should he have? Should it be extensive and televised like that of the Gang of Four, or truncated and regimented like that of (his wife) Gu Kailai? Can Bo, formerly a feisty person, be guaranteed to follow a script without displaying the impact of confinement’s coercion?”

He adds further comment below:

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Over half a century ago, an underappreciated political scientist named Otto Kirchheimer wrote Political Justice, in which he addresses the question why so many dictatorships prefer to convict their enemies in ostensibly “public” trials rather than secretly give them a bullet in the head in some basement. Even though it is forced to operate in a much more transparent environment before a much more sophisticated audience than Stalin and his contemporaries had to, China’s current leadership confronts the same felt need to use people called and dressed like judges to solemnly issue public condemnations in the name of their government. It enhances regime legitimacy and provides an outlet for the feelings of the people, even of those who know the courts are simply doing what they are told to do by the leaders, that evil is being punished and good reinforced.

The more interesting question, of course, given the need of a collective leadership to compromise in order to avoid divisiveness, is: how far should public prosecution go, what should be included in its limited revelations and what excluded? In Bo’s case, the indictment, which I have not yet seen and only know a bit about, indicates that he will be convicted of receiving a relatively modest amount of bribes (for a leader) and converting to his own use probably a lot less than a zealous prosecutor might prove. The leaders may believe that to prove more might involve too many others and even raise further questions about themselves. The most interesting thing to watch regarding the charges will be the breadth attached to the “abuse of power” claim. Will it be restricted to Bo’s role in the coverup of the murder or will it go beyond that late stage in the Heywood affair and deal with the preliminaries? I assume it will not include Bo’s criminal use of the judicial system to unfairly accuse, detain, torture, convict and execute many enemies, opponents and obstacles to his desires, although I would love to be proved wrong on this. It seems unlikely to include Bo’s relations with women unless they can muster evidence to show he used his power to improve his sex life!

The procedures will also be interesting. How “public”? Witnesses in court? Wouldn’t it be nice for Gu and Wang to appear for cross-examination? What will his able defense lawyers be allowed to do?

When I asked Chinese friends why the trial was being delayed so long, they said it was because Bo was refusing to admit he had done anything that all the other leaders didn’t also do.  Without his cooperation, the trial could not go forward.  There may also have been disagreement among the leaders about how harshly to treat him.  Apparently this multi-sided negotiation has now been settled, and from the tiny bit of information I’ve seen so far what strikes me is the relatively anodyne nature of the charges—corruption and abuse of power, the same thing that every other fallen politician is charged for these days.  Nothing about murder, nothing about spying on other party leaders, nothing about what in the Mao days was called a “line struggle” (an ideological struggle over the country's direction in which the losing side was considered to have committed ideological heresy), nothing about an attempted power seizure.  Compared to the trial of the Lin Biao-Jiang Qing Counterrevolutionary Clique in 1980, this would seem to be set up as a pretty quiet affair.  

In a way it almost saves Bo’s face, because the Chinese public can appreciate that these charges are the standard formula for politicians who lose out in power struggles. It certainly saves the face of the Party because it sweeps under the rug  the juicy, highly political scandals revealed by the former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun when he fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu early last year.

I like Andy’s comments and only point out that “abuse of power” was previously linked by Xinhua to Bo’s misconduct concerning both Gu’s and Wang’s crimes. The phrase is broad enough to cover a multitude of sins. We need to see whether the indictment lays out anything more to substantiate the charge. It may not. There’s still plenty of time to overstuff that rubric.

Re: the role of lawyers, today’s Xinhua release doesn’t say whether they have actually met with him or not, only that they put in their views, presumably meaning with the prosecutors before the indictment as the new Criminal Procedure Law allows them to do. One might infer that personal contact with their client was a necessary prerequisite to stating their views, but that may be a Western assumption on which Xinhua is relying.

Has it really come to this? The battle for China’s future and the greatest show trial since Madame Mao reduced to anodyne charges—as Andrew aptly puts it—of garden-variety corruption?

I’ll defer to Jerry’s note of caution—“abuse of power” could yet be expansively defined—but the recent official pronouncements are devoid of the incendiary details that captivated much of China and indeed the world last year.

Last September the Politburo, via Xinhua, implicated Bo’s involvement with his wife’s murder of Englishman Neil Heywood; illegal intercepts of electronic communications; illicit liaisons with multiple women;  ominously phrased “other crimes,” as well as massive bribes, personally and through his family.

Earlier, Bo’s maverick police chief, Wang Lijun, attempted to defect to the United States and the premier, Wen Jiabao, went so far as to draw parallels between Bo’s antics in Chongqing and those of Chairman Mao in the Cultural Revolution. There were robustly-sourced reports of systematic torture, asset stripping, preternatural narcissism, godfathers, godmothers—as well as more creative reports of multi-billion dollar money laundering and celebrity prostitution.

In that context, recent reports that Bo will be tried for receiving roughly 20 million yuan read like a gentleman’s agreement, made between the families, to ensure the distribution of power and privilege remains largely undisturbed. These pallid allegations satisfied nobody when they were first circulated earlier this year. And they are unlikely to lead to any sense of closure now.

Some in the red aristocracy who grew up with Bo, and describe themselves as liberals, argue that he should be given a proper trial with his choice of lawyer, even though they don’t like what he did. His adversaries, associated with the family of the former liberal Party chief, Hu Yaobang, believe he is getting off lightly, a bit like pinning tax charges on Al Capone. Supporters, meanwhile, believe the whole thing is a conspiracy to bring down a leader who would uphold the ideals of communism and make the Party worthy of its name.

The spectacular rise and fall of Bo Xilai blew open the façade of Communist Party unity that had concealed widening fault lines in society and the leadership elite. For the first time, the webs of power and money that bind and also divide China’s red aristocracy were exposed for the world to see. The Party will try its best to erect a new façade, and perhaps hold it in place with rubber bands and gaffer tape, but the underlying problems remain entirely unresolved.
The biggest of them was articulated by the former premier, Wen Jiabao, when he foreshadowed Bo's demise in March last year.

“We must press ahead with both economic reform and political structural reform, especially reform in the leadership system of our party and country,” Wen said at his final annual press briefing, prior to a New York Times expose of his own family’s multi-billion dollar wealth.

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Law, Politics