The Surprise Loser of China’s Trial of the Century: Its Corruption Watchdog

It seems like everybody has something to gain from Show Trial 2.0, a.k.a. the semi-live tweeting of fallen politician Bo Xilai’s day in court.

Bo Xilai the showman takes a bow with a flourish; Gu Kailai, the scorned wife, exacts sweet revenge; Chinese leader Xi Jinping appears magnanimous by granting a defeated frienemy his one last wish; fallen Bo deputy Wang Lijun wins the part as a star-crossed Romeo; Jinan’s prosecutors and judges score good marks from China’s legal community. As for Bo’s son, the Prodigal Melon? The gregarious fellow just wanted to treat his pals to nice trips. Alas, Guagua only wanted a Segway for himself, not a Ferrari.

Photo illustration: Bo Xilai’s swan song.

The biggest loser so far to emerge from the Bo Xilai trial, however, is one of China’s most mysterious institutions: the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party’s internal corruption watchdog. Its name is often spoken in hushed tones, and until now, its methods were shrouded in secrecy. A report that the Commission uses extra-judicial methods against cadres under investigation was censored earlier this year.

Bo’s courtroom testimony was perhaps the first and only time that the Commission has been openly accused of extracting statements with “leading questions” and “improper pressure.” On the very first day of his trial, Bo told the court that his written statements to the Commission confessing to certain corruption charges, which were presented by the prosecutors as evidence, were made under duress. Bo claimed the confessions were “against his will” and, in fact, “his mind was a complete blank” when the statements were made.

As the trial wore on, Bo not only continued to deny the veracity of his own statements made to the Commission, he also attacked the credibility of witnesses against him. He took particular aim at his wife Gu Kailai, claiming that she, like other witnesses, had been coerced or intimidated by the Commission into testifying against him.

By his own account, Bo had good food and lodging while under the sixteen-month Commission investigation. He mentioned several times that “most” investigators were “civilized and polite,” implying that some were not. He said he made the self-incriminating statements to the Commission because “at the time, he had harbored hopes that his Party membership could be kept and his political life could be saved,” leading some of Bo’s supporters to believe that the Commission had made false promises to Bo in order to solicit a confession.

Clearly, Bo had given up on such vain hopes by the time his case moved to trial. In court, Bo claimed that the psychological pressure brought to bear on him by the Commission was palpable.

The New York Times reports that, according to Bo’s family members, Bo told the Jinan court that “he had made one bribery confession last year to investigators only after being warned that his wife could be given the death sentence and his son, who had just graduated from Harvard, brought back to China to face charges,” and that “[Bo] had been interrogated hundreds of times and fainted 27 times.” In addition, according to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, Bo testified that a high Commission official told him that “his charges could lead to a harsh verdict or a lenient one,” depending on his attitude.

These details were censored from the Jinan court’s Weibo tweets, likely to keep the Chinese public from learning about the Commission’s inner workings.

Bo’s parting shot at the Commission, however, may have long-term implications. The Commission probably prefers to uphold its image as the ultimate graft-buster, not a political machine manned by goons that threatens the lives of suspects’ families.

Currently, in the court of public opinion, the Commission is given substantial leeway, with the Chinese public usually cheering on any corruption investigation. After the Bo trial, however, the Commission’s credibility may suffer erosion, its methods may be open to challenge by other suspects, and the legitimacy of its findings may thus be cast into doubt.

Ironically, before his spectacular fall from the apex of Chinese politics, Bo Xilai was rumored to be the front-runner to head up the Commission after the Eighteenth Party Congress in November 2012.