“The long-awaited trial of fallen Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power concluded on Monday after five days, three more than expected. The date of the verdict’s announcement has yet to be decided,” China Digital Times reports.
“The trial remains political stagecraft, fashioned around Mr. Bo’s combative character, analysts say, despite the fact that the party, in an unexpected show of relative transparency, has allowed millions of Chinese citizens to witness much of Mr. Bo’s performance through a running court microblog,” the New York Times reports:
The spectacle, they say, is an effort by the party to convince his elite party allies and ordinary supporters that Mr. Bo, a populist politician and the son of a revolutionary leader, had his say in court, and that the long prison sentence he is expected to get is based on evidence of crimes committed, not political payback. State news media have highlighted daily the evidence presented against Mr. Bo, while officials have limited his airtime in court and in the transcripts to help maintain control.
“The authorities hope to separate the Bo Xilai case from politics,” said Chen Jieren, a legal commentator. “They want people to think this was only an anticorruption struggle, not a political and ideological struggle.”
“Conducting anti-crime campaigns with disregard for the rule of law and advocating a return to the values of the revolution, Bo became the figurehead of the so-called New Left,” Deutsche Welle reports.
“Bo Xilai broke with the tradition of preserving the unity of the party and keeping any internal struggles away from the limelight. He developed a sort of brand essence with his administration of the southwestern city of Chongqing,” said Andrew Nathan (right), political science professor at Columbia University. This approach was frowned upon by many of the party’s top cadres.
Analysts point out that corruption charges in China are often used to get rid of party members considered political liabilities.
“They are telling other politicians not to challenge the central leadership through mobilizing their own people or presenting a different political line,” said David Zweig, professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
What’s at stake in the trial goes beyond the fate of one allegedly corrupt official, leading analysts suggest.
Is it really a fight between factions in the Communist Party? the editors of China File ask.
“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,” writes Jerome A. Cohen:
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.
“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,” writes Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:
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,” he writes. “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.”
Bo’s spectacular rise and fall “blew open the façade of Communist Party unity that had concealed widening fault lines in society and the leadership elite,” writes China File’s John Garnaut:
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.
Officials were exposing only Bo’s narrow crimes, not the wider abuses liberals accuse him of encouraging during the “strike black” anticorruption campaign in Chongqing, said Chen Ping, a Hong Kong publisher who knows party leaders.
“The party wasn’t willing to try Bo Xilai on the charges that he should have faced — trampling on human rights, trampling on rule of law.” he said. “That’s because those mistakes are also the party’s mistakes.”
Rule of law
“It is not as if China hasn’t experimented with legal reform,” the Washington Post notes:
As professor Carl Minzner writes in the Journal of Democracy, party officials in the 1970s and 1980s turned their backs on Mao’s revolutionary principles and launched extensive changes aimed at building new structures to govern China. They created a comprehensive framework of civil, commercial, criminal and administrative law, built a more professional judicial system and encouraged court trials to resolve disputes. They saw this as a way to ease China’s huge social conflicts and channel popular discontent into institutions within the existing structure. By the 2000s, there was a cadre of public-interest lawyers and legal activists, such as Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer and activist now in the United States.