On Sunday, the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court announced that the former Chongqing Communist Party chief and once fast-rising political star Bo Xilai had been found guilty of corruption and was to be sentenced to lifetime in prison for his crimes. Following his trial last month, which captivated the global media with its apparent transparency, the sentencing of Bo closes this chapter of the story of China’s greatest political intrigue of the 21st century. Yet, with strong support for Bo Xilai persisting in the bastions of Chongqing and Dalian and with presumed backing in sections of the Communist Party leadership, it remains to be seen whether this book can be closed for good. Under such circumstances, the best that we can do is attempt to make head or tail of the legal process to which Bo was submitted, as well as the ramifications this process has for both law and society in China.
During and after Bo’s late August trial, the Western press expressed fascination with the manner in which proceedings in the Jinan, Shandong province courtroom played out more or less within view of the public eye. China’s newspapers featured articles replete with photographs from the trial, including one of Bo making a three-fingered gesture which became the source of much controversy and consternation. Court officials made regular updates to the court’s Weibo microblog, including a sort of transcript of proceedings. It is easy to see why the Beijing press pack were so enamoured with the trial in Jinan. But in China’s newspapers, the glossy photographs were not accompanied by much in the way of analysis or commentary. Often acknowledged as such but occasionally not, the only text was sourced from the Xinhua state news agency. The microblog transcript was posted on delay, and there are strong indications that it was also edited for political convenience as well. The trial, while possessing a degree of transparency, was for the most part as much of a kangaroo court as previous political trials in the People’s Republic.
But while the transparency in Jinan appears to have all been for show, there is more than a binary difference between a show trial and due process. It would have been beyond the realm of possibility for the Chinese judicial authorities to implement the structures and mindsets that make true due process possible overnight, or even over the course of one trial. While they don’t count for much, and while their practical significance is distinctly limited, the transcript postings on the court microblog, along with the presence of mainland journalists in the courtroom is at least a small step in the right direction. It appears that judicial authorities are also serious about making the example of Bo’s trial more than a flash in the pan. Bo, having been sentenced to life in prison, has launched an appeal. A real analysis can only take place after his appeal has been heard, but the simple fact that Bo has been silenced with the final lowering of the judge’s gavel is progress in itself. A show trial this may be, but it is a better show trial than those in recent memory, for instance in the cases of the lawyer Li Zhuang in Chongqing or the mob boss Liu Yong in Shenyang, both of whom endured trials with not even a semblance of due process.
Some controversy has also erupted over the sentence handed down to Bo. Bill Bishop, the man behind the popular Sinocism newsletter, congratulated himself for guessing that Bo would face at least life in prison (a safe bet if ever there was one). While there was some suggestion that Bo may face the death penalty, this was always unlikely for several reasons. Firstly, Bo is, by virtue of his bloodlines, an entrenched member of China’s political elite, and members of this group are reticent to do away with their own. Partly due to a fear from reprisals from within and partly due to a cognizance of the need to keep ordinary citizens with a favourable view of Bo on side, Bo was not given even the suspended death sentence issued to his wife, Gu Kailai. But there is more to Bo’s sentence than political convenience. In 2003, Liu Yong, the aforementioned mob boss, was executed after being convicted of corruption. An intermediate court had initially acquitted Liu citing improper use of evidence. But, under pressure from a general public thirsty for blood, this acquittal was quashed by the Supreme People’s Court, and Liu was killed. While there are still pockets of support for Bo, there are also great numbers of people would feel not a tinge of sadness were he to be executed. The sentencing of Bo to a life term grants at least a degree of civilisation to the proceedings that he faced.
The decision to refrain from sentencing Bo Xilai to death is particularly meaningful because as long as he is life, there remains the possibility that he will re-emerge from the ashes of his once-promising career like a political phoenix. The Communist Party (and let’s not kid ourselves, it is Xi Jinping and his allies who are making this decision) have taken a huge risk in not ordering Bo’s execution, a decision that would have been within the limits of past precedent. Xi Jinping has mitigated these risks by carrying out what is essentially a divide and conquer campaign, detailed here by John Garnaut for The Atlantic. While Bo Xilai, his wife Gu Kailai, his henchman Wang Lijun all at least temporarily incarcerated and with associate Zhou Yongkang soon to face trial, the current administration has gone as far as it can without resorting to the injection van to reinforce the position of its clique. Xi and his allies, however, have not prioritised intra-Party power politics over progress towards due process. Garnaut likened Xi’s tactics to that of Mao Zedong, but prominent rivals of Mao such as Lin Biao and Liu Shaoqi died in gruesome ways. Bo Xilai has not been sentenced to death and has been permitted the right to appeal. It may not be much, but at the very least, this is certain evidence of the relative civilisation of contemporary Chinese power politics.
This so-called Trial of the Century would seem to have ramifications for more than CCP power plays. But, as the case proceeded from indictment to hearing to sentencing, the coverage it garnered in the Chinese press – most of it in photo form anyway – grew steadily sparser. Economic growth figures for the last quarter remain strong and public education campaigns centre not on persuading people to abandon the Bo clique but on the unifying China Dream mantra. On the streets in Chinese cities, life goes on as normal and people make offhand remarks about Bo without glancing over their shoulders first. In general, the Bo Xilai case has been successfully characterised as just one more in the catalogue that forms the legal campaign against corruption in China. That the political intrigue surrounding the case has been contained and has not incited much in the way of social intrigue speaks for the success with which has been managed. It is not for certain that this chapter marks the end of the Bo Xilai story, but if there is another one to come, it is likely to be far less tempestuous than the one which preceded it.