As China assumes a more central role in international affairs and touts its rapid economic growth over the past 30 years, its leaders seek to establish a reputation for governing society according to the rule of law. Tested by Bo’s trial, the new leadership has struggled to maintain that fiction, and to appear open and confident before its people. Ultimately, those efforts have failed.
Bo’s case must have felt to party leaders like a tumor growing near a carotid artery — too dangerous to treat, yet too aggressive to be left alone. ….
To project strength and show that the party stood above petty politics, authorities decided to release a “live” — but clearly censored — transcript of the proceedings. ….Yet by presenting a censored account, officials raised more questions than they answered. The public knew they weren’t seeing the whole picture, and could only speculate on what major pieces of the story remained hidden. Even their reactions were censored: Within a day, the Jinan court received more than 4,000 comments on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, but only 22 were allowed to be shown.
Censorship remains the regime’s default response to any outpouring of public opinion. In an instance like this where transparency is required, China’s leaders are unable to truly embrace openness, or to perform in any way that would earn understanding and sympathy from the public at large. Instead, authorities sought to contain the trial’s narrative within bounds that wouldn’t shake the party’s foundations. …..
If the regime didn’t manage to convey its intended message with Bo’s trial, what message was received? Cadres were supposed to learn that bribe-taking wouldn’t be tolerated, no matter how illustrious the official. Rather than encouraging party members to be honest or hardworking, though, the trial has taught them above all to do whatever it takes to stay on the right side of the current leadership. The constitution and the law, even basic moral judgments, hardly figure in their calculations.
The result is that no Chinese leader, from the village level to the Politburo, enjoys any sense of security. With its arbitrary rule, the party nurtures an official mentality that undermines constructive decision making and the possibility of change. It is a sad position in China to be a politician.
Chinese citizens aren’t much better off. Bo comes from a deep-rooted, revolutionary Communist family and was a political superstar before his arrest — one of the most active and high profile members of the pro-Mao, “Red Second Generation.” He represents every bit of the leadership’s thinking today; his style, experience, energy, passion and political stance pretty much define the core values of the “Chinese Dream.” If even he could be brought low so thoroughly, what chance does an ordinary citizen have? Nobody can be safe when values such as human rights, freedom of speech and judicial fairness are sacrificed to serve the interests of political elites. ……………..
Because the Chinese government refuses to face elections, the public has never had a chance to express its opinion about the leadership. The grounds to have any form of communication, discussion or argument — absolute requirements for building the social infrastructure for a modern society — have never been established. The Communist Party is ethically and philosophically too weak to meet any challenge in public discussion.
Over the coming years, perhaps the Communist government will finally face real questions about its legitimacy, and realize that it can only continue to govern if supported by the constitution and true rule of law. Otherwise, if it continues to reject any public role in its decision making and hopes to distract Chinese with spectacles like the Bo case, the regime will only hasten its own end. Bo’s drama may soon end, but the regime is still on trial.
Ai Weiwei is a Beijing-based artist and sociocultural critic, as well as a prolific Twitter user. Follow him at @aiww