Bo Xilai as a Catalyst for Political Reform

No matter how you look at it, the disciplinary process surrounding the case of Bo Xilai will have historic implications.

Details of the crimes committed by Bo, his wife, Bogu Kailai, and his former right-hand man, Wang Lijun, reflect a level of wrongdoing that threatened the legal system’s dignity and undermined the rule of law for the sake of personal gain.

What we can expect next for Bo is a court trial, sentencing, and serious punishment, in accordance with the law, while the nation pauses to reflect on the urgent need for further reform, especially in the political arena, brought to the fore by his case.

The Politburo released its findings and a decision to oust Bo from the Communist Party simultaneously with a schedule for the 18th Party Congress to be held in early November, underscoring clear correlation of these events.

President Hu Jintao emphasized the importance of political reform on July 23—three months after authorities launched the Bo investigation—in a speech at the Central Party School. On a separate occasion recently, Vice President Xi Jinping echoed this firm stance for reform. And on September 29, at a National Day banquet, Premier Wen Jiabao reaffirmed the government’s resolve to advance comprehensive reform.

Clearly, alarm bells were ringing in Beijing after details of the Bo case came to light. The central government then reacted by strengthening its determination to support political reform.

As Chongqing’s party chief, Bo had a reputation for fighting crime with an iron fist. But behind the scenes, he abused his power while his wife and police chief broke the law. During a vigorous war against organized crime in the city, Bo and his affiliates manipulated the legal system and strengthened their grip on police power, even while building the biggest mafia in town.

Absolute control over the police gave Bo and his wife the power to cheapen the legal process and misapply laws to protect their personal interests. Bo’s authority in Chongqing thus turned dangerous, even totalitarian.

Preventing future incidents of this kind will require guarding against excessive police power and all threats to the rule of law. The speeches recently delivered by Hu and Wen reflect their awareness that the reform process hinges on building democracy and the rule of law.

The Politburo announcement booting Bo from the party September 28 also described investigator conclusions that he as well as family members abused his official status for private gain and accepted bribes over a twenty-year span, while he held senior government positions in Dalian, Liaoning province; Chongqing; and as the central government’s minister of commerce.

Many have asked whether this corruption could have been detected earlier. Maybe we should ask a deeper question: Why do people appointed as mayors, ministers, and other senior officials seek private gain after rising to power?

Some twenty years ago, economists were warning that rent-seeking behavior in China’s transition economy would lead to corruption. They also said an effective solution could be found by perfecting the market economy.

Now, at this crucial juncture for China’s reform effort, the most urgent and difficult task on the agenda calls for reducing government intervention in economic activities and, thus, reducing opportunities for rent-seeking.

Every corruption case is different, and the Bo case is especially unique. But fundamental therapy for any form of corruption in China should include steps to restrain the government’s role in the economy through reform.

It takes a long time for institution-building to contribute significantly to a fight against corruption. So we should not delay.

Another effective safeguard against official corruption is offered by media coverage. Thus, the media should be allowed to carry out its role and responsibility as a watchdog. Efforts to improve the media’s position should play an important role in the political reform process. This is a change that can be implemented immediately.

The Bo scandal inflicted significant damage at a huge cost. It told us a lot about official corruption and focused a searing light on reasons for political reform. But the real lesson we’ve learned from this disgraceful case is that action is needed, as soon as possible.