Show trial for former high-flyer
Bo Xilai courtroom drama not enough to demonstrate that rule of law is respected in China
Posted: August 26, 2013
The trial in China of Bo Xilai, a man once tipped for elevation to China's supreme decision-making body, has offered gripping courtroom theater.
The 64-year-old Bo, accused of bribery, corruption and abuse of power, has made a spirited defense in the early stages of his trial, rubbishing witnesses - including his own wife, Gu Kailai - and saying that confessions had been made under duress. He even branded Gu as someone who had become "crazy" and a habitual liar.
With proceedings being blogged live by the authorities, it gives an impression of openness, of a system that respects the rule of law because the defendant is given his day in court, while at the same time showing that even the most senior officials in China are not above the law.
Bo has been accused of a string of misdemeanors, among them taking bribes totaling about $3.5 million and covering up for his wife when she was accused of murdering a British businessman, a crime for which she was subsequently convicted and given a suspended death sentence.
What has really been demonstrated by the scandal surrounding Bo, who had been widely expected to be made a member of the now seven-strong Politburo Standing Committee that runs the country, is that rule of law in China remains subservient to political power.
The ultimate reason the trial is happening is not because Bo may or may not have fallen foul of the law. Instead, it is because rivals in China's leadership decided the criminal case would be a convenient way of neutralizing him.
After all, among senior officials, corruption and wrongdoing are certainly not confined to Bo. They are part and parcel of an authoritarian system where the judicial system has to play second fiddle to party authority.
When judges take their orders from a party that has a monopoly on power, the rule of law can never be what it should be. The verdict of Bo's trial and the punishment he will receive will largely have been decided by the party already and even the courtroom dramas may have been agreed in advance.
Bo played a high stakes game and lost. A former commerce minister and mayor of the seaside town of Dalian, he was moved to the municipality of Chongqing as party secretary in late 2007, and set about using his transfer, seen at the time as a sideways move, as a platform for catapulting himself into the inner leadership circle.
He launched a much-publicized campaign for communist nostalgia, organizing the mass singing of "red songs," and sent out text messages of Mao Zedong quotes. His initiatives to help the less-well off, including a large program to provide affordable housing, and a crackdown on organized crime, the "smashing the black" campaign, made him wildly popular with the masses. Too popular in fact.
The first major sign things were going wrong for Bo was when his police chief, Wang Lijun, believed to be facing corruption allegations himself, fled to a US consulate in February 2012 after, it transpired, he had fallen out with his boss. Wang apparently told diplomats he had evidence of corruption by Bo.
A huge scandal subsequently became public in which Bo's wife was revealed as having poisoned the British businessman Neil Heywood after their business relationship turned sour.
While few doubt Bo Xilai is deserving of punishment, the key issue is that he is being prosecuted not so much because of what he did, but of who he was, namely a populist who would have been a formidable rival to the current generation of leaders.
Had he had greater support among the top power brokers, investigations into his conduct would never have gone this far.
Similarly, there have recently been reports that one of Bo's old allies, Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the politburo standing committee, is facing investigation over alleged corruption, because the current top leaders have sanctioned such a probe. Again, judicial processes are only allowed to take their course once the politicians give their say so.
Lest anyone start to feel sorry for Bo, and believe he has been unfairly targeted, it is worth remembering that he himself has a track record of using selective - and in some cases quite brutal - justice to serve his own ends.
The "smashing the black" campaign saw more than 5,000 people arrested. While many were no doubt deserving of attention from the authorities, there were widespread claims that proper legal processes were not adhered to, that torture was used by police and that Bo was targeting opponents among the local business community. Bo was quite happy to see a number of people executed as part of the clean-up drive, among them Wen Qiang, the former head of Chongqing's judicial bureau.
Bo must be thankful that, now that the tables have turned and he himself is the focus of politically motivated justice, he is unlikely to face the same penalty as Wen. A long jail term is much more likely.
Daniel Bardsley is the former China correspondent for The National newspaper, Abu Dhabi.
Daniel Bardsley can be reached at
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