Tuesday, May 26, 2015, 11:28 PM CST – China

Politics

Trial of Bo Xilai

Problem Solved?

Former Politburo member Bo Xilai’s public trial sends mixed messages about the future of justice in China

Bo Xilai in court, August 26, 2013 Photo by Xinhua

Journalists watch pre-recorded testimony from Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, August 23, 2013 Photo by IC

News cameras in front of the courthouse Photo by IC

Security around the court was tight Photo by Xinhua

A villa in France allegedly owned by the Bo family Photo by CFP

After 17 months in confinement, Bo Xilai, a former member of the powerful Politburo and Party chief of southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality finally stood trial on August 23 in a court in Jinan, capital of Shandong Province. One month later, Bo was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to life imprisonment. Due to his vociferous denial of all charges, Bo was not granted leniency, according to the court ruling.

Millions followed the sensational live transcript feeds through online news portals and Weibo – China’s Twitter. The very public trial of a highly controversial and ambitious high-ranking official provided a rare chance for ordinary Chinese to scrutinize and attempt to decipher the inner workings of the country’s usually closed-door judicial process and search for signs of any change in the legal system.

Bo was officially charged with taking bribes valued at US$3.4 million, including a luxury villa in France; embezzling US$820,000 of public funds; and abusing his power by dismissing Wang Lijun, former police chief of Chongqing, in an effort to cover up the murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman and a family friend, by Gu Kailai, Bo’s estranged wife. Gu and Wang were convicted in late 2012.

Wang’s attempt to defect to the United States at its consulate in nearby Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, in February 2012 triggered Bo’s eventual downfall.

In contrast to the trials of Gu Kailai and Wang Lijun, both of which were hastily wrapped up within a single day and behind closed doors, with only the sentencing hearing made public, Bo’s trial was not only spread over five days, but also afforded an unusual degree of publicity with the court releasing detailed, though incomplete, transcripts of the proceedings on its Weibo feed.

Unlike Gu and Wang, who readily confessed to all charges in pre-scripted statements delivered at their sentencing hearings before being slapped with a death sentence with a two-year reprieve (usually commuted to life imprisonment) and 15 years in prison respectively, Bo proved a tougher customer. Speaking in his own defense, he rejected all the charges against him, challenging the prosecution’s case point by point and deftly cross-examining witnesses.

A peek into one of China’s most powerful families soon turned into a salacious exposé of power struggles, love triangles and the decadent lifestyles of China’s shadowy political aristocracy. The Chinese public, unused to such a glamorous and visible dressing-down of a prominent Party member, were captivated. 

Secrets        

According to the prosecution, with Bo’s blessing, Gu hatched a complicated plan with the support of two foreign nationals, including future murder victim Neil Heywood, to hide the Bo family’s ownership of a US$3m villa in France. Bo denied any knowledge of the villa, which the prosecution claimed was paid for by Xu Ming, a businessman. Bo called on the court to reject Gu’s testimony on the grounds that he had antagonized his wife after an extramarital affair which, he claimed, prompted Gu to take their son, Bo Guagua, to the United Kingdom to continue his education. He also added that his wife’s testimony was made under duress, and had been provided to the court in exchange for a more lenient sentence.

To the allegation that he tried to cover up Neil Heywood’s murder, Bo alleged a conspiracy to slander his wife, masterminded by Wang Lijun. The most dramatic episode during the trial saw Bo confront Wang, who alleged he had been personally “subjected to violence” at the hands of Bo following Heywood’s murder. Wang also alleged that his aides had been “disappearing.” Bo countered by claiming that Wang was “secretly in love” with his wife, and resorted to defection only when his relationship with the family broke down.

The lurid details exposed during the trial, which was light on hard evidence and legal procedure, earned the unfolding drama a huge public audience. On the Internet, much of the discussion surrounding the trial was devoted to speculation as to the origins of “a large slab of meat from a very rare animal” mentioned in Gu’s testimony.

According to Gu, the meat was brought back from Africa by her 25-year-old son after he returned from a US$130,000 vacation – a trip again paid for by businessman Xu Ming. She said Bo and her son had a dispute over how they should consume the meat – the son wanted to eat it raw, while the father wanted to cook it.

While many simply lapped up seemingly irrelevant details such as this during their rare glimpse of how the other half lives, others attempted to analyze the trial for indication as to the future of rule of law in China – an area in which the government has pledged sweeping reform.

Progress?

According to the State media, Bo’s trial, with its unusual level of publicity, indicated major progress in China’s justice system. “A milestone event in the China’s judicial history,” commented the Liaowang Newsweekly, a magazine published by the State-owned Xinhua News Agency, “It is symbolic of progress made in its legal system, and the leadership’s determination to fight corruption.”

Similar sentiments echoed throughout quite a number of State-owned media, and the timing of the trial – which coincides with a widespread and, again, highly publicized crackdown on corruption – was certainly apt. In recent months, 16 senior government and Party officials have been placed under investigation, with some, including four senior executives of State petroleum giant PetroChina and the former head of the powerful Ministry of Railways, finding themselves out in the cold.

While the State media were quick to call the trial a success, independent news sources and a range of other sources voiced suspicion of just how significant such a trial would prove in the drive to reform China’s legal system. Though the Bo trial can be interpreted as a rare manifestation of political will with regards to the rule of law, the fact is many pertinent legal details, such as Bo’s excessive and highly questionable persecution of local entrepreneurs during his tenure in Chongqing, were not among the charges levelled against him. Similarly, the often frivolous and gossipy testimony led many to conclude that this trial was groundbreaking only in its availability for public consumption.

“If such charges are brought against Bo, he might well receive the death penalty,” commented He Weifang, a law professor from Peking University, in a microblog commentary entitled “The Trial of Bo Xilai - Legal or Political?” “But at the same time, it would damage the legitimacy of the Party if these crimes are publicized,” He added.

The public also remained broadly skeptical. Several online polls were conducted while the trial was still in session. According to the results of one poll allegedly conducted by portal ifeng.com, which was hastily taken down but has continued to be widely cited on China’s social media, 74 percent of 437,000 respondents endorsed the publicity granted to the trial.

But when asked about the “significance” of the publicity, respondents seemed divided. About 40 percent gave positive or relatively positive comments, with 11 percent saying the trial marked “major progress in China’s legal system.” 12 percent felt that the trial “proves the possibility of putting power in a cage under the current system,” and 17 percent said that it had “brought a top leader down from their ivory tower.” A slightly higher proportion, or 44 percent of those surveyed, responded that they were “not sure” about the significance of the trial. The remaining 16 percent said that the trial provided “a lesson” for both the public and government officials. As the survey was later removed from ifeng.com, however, the final data remains in doubt.

To a large extent, Bo’s trial, with its unexpected degree of publicity, is a part of the new Chinese leadership’s formula for boosting Party legitimacy. The new generation of leaders has promised to establish a more candid government, to fight against widespread corruption and to reform the legal system.

As long as China’s huge income gap and legion of social problems persist, public dissatisfaction will remain strong. Unless this situation changes, the specter of Bo Xilai will continue to haunt his former colleagues in the Politburo.

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