Bo Xilai: China's Trial of the Century

25 Jul, 2013    ·   4054

Namrata Hasija on what the trial of Bo Xilai means for the inner workings of the Party

Namrata Hasija
Namrata Hasija
Senior Research Officer

Bo Xilai has been formally charged with bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power today according to Jinan City People’s Procuratorate in east China’s Shandong province. The indictment paper delivered to the Jinan City Intermediate People’s Court today has again brought what has been named ‘China’s Trial of the Century’ into the limelight.
What exactly are the charges framed against Bo Xilai? What does this say for the measures that the Party is taking to combat internal factionalism and corruption?

The Case
The now infamous case unfolded with the flight of Bo’s police chief, Wang Lijun, to the US consulate in Chengdu. The case got murkier after revelations that the reason for the fallout between the two was that Bo was forcing Wang to cover up his wife’s involvement in the murder of Neil Heywood. Gu Kailai was subsequently convicted in August and has been given a suspended death sentence for her involvement in the case. Wang Lijun was convicted in September 2012 to 15 years in prison.

Bo has been in detention since April 2012 but it is only now that charges have been finally levied against him for embezzling RMB 5 million and for taking RMB 20 million in bribes via his wife, thereby abusing his powers. By law, the indictment papers are required to be delivered to the defendant at least 10 days prior to the trial, thus indicating that it might take place in the first half of August 2013.

The Bo Xilai Trial: The Larger Picture
Bo Xilai, a hardliner, was known for his strict anti-corruption campaign and his revival of the collectivist spirit of Mao, during his tenure as Chief of Chongqing, had earned the ire of many within the Party ranks. His arrest further revealed fissures between the hardliners and reformers within the party, especially when Wen Jiabao openly criticised him in 2012 for trying to revive Mao’s ideology against the consensus the CPC had adopted in 1978 to draw the line over the Cultural Revolution. The choice of Jinan as the place for the trial also indicates that the party wanted it to take place in a city which had no connection to the case and also where the party officials are somewhat neutral towards Bo.

The delay in the trial was a result of this struggle as many within the party were not in favour of punishing him severely. This being said, there are no mention of charges relating to his term as the chief of Chongqing as the document stated charges related to his term as mayor of Dalain (1993-2000) and Commerce Minister (2004-2007). This indicates some kind of tacit settlement within the party factions as far as Bo Xilai’s fate is concerned. The statements from senior party officials of late about disunity being harmful for the party and Jiang Zemin’s (who was close to Bo Xilai) praise for Xi Jinping’s leadership on a public platform indicates the same. According to Willy Lam, political expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the leaders have reached a settlement of sentencing Bo Xilai to around 17-18 years of house arrest. He also stated that there is an unwritten law that members of the Politburo would never be awarded a death sentence or a suspended death sentence as was given to Bo Xilai’s wife.

China’s censors have also temporarily lifted the ban on Bo’s name indicating that the leaders want the public to know that he has been charged and will face the consequences of his alleged crimes. “We must have the resolve to fight every corrupt phenomenon, punish every corrupt official and constantly eliminate the soil which breeds corruption, so as to earn people's trust with actual results” were Xi Jinping’s words when he took the resolve to fight corruption. China’s new leadership is trying hard to maintain a balance between the two factions within the party and at the same time satisfy public demands for justice against corrupt officials. Last month Liu Zhijun, a former Railways Minister was given a suspended death sentence for abuse of power and taking 64.6 million yuan in bribes. This sends out a clear message to other corrupt officials that they are not immune from investigation and prosecution if suspected of graft or corruption.

The Bo Xilai affair had shaken the party and also revealed the factions and rampant corruption within the party ranks. Xi Jinping’s decision to get over with the trial before the plenum meeting in the fall where the party’s plan to reform country’s economy and slow growth would be discussed shows that the top leadership wants to put this case behind them. It also shows that new leadership understood that unnecessarily dragging this case would make it difficult for them to unite different factions within the party and foster a façade of unity.