China doesn't need more show trials
Chang Ping laments that Chinese people still don't know the full facts of the Bo Xilai case, after two trials that betrayed Beijing's pledge for a prosecution that would stand the test of law
During the trial of the Gang of Four in the winter of 1980, Jiang Qing delivered a two-hour tirade in her own defence, during which she famously described herself as a dog of Mao Zedong. More than 30 years later, another political wife stood accused in a Chinese court of law, one believed to have been similarly corrupted by the power wielded by her husband.
But there were no hysterics from Gu Kailai, the wife of former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai. Handed a suspended death sentence for murder, she appeared calm and said she accepted it.
People disappointed by the scripted proceedings of Gu's trial then placed their hopes for answers in the trial of Wang Lijun. After all, this was a man who one day dramatically fled to the US consulate; he may again surprise at the trial with revelations about Bo that the authorities were trying to suppress. So much for that. People at the closed-door trial reported that the former Chongqing police chief appeared pained and determined - like a fallen hero awaiting his fate.
Wang was jailed for 15 years, and he too said he would not appeal. He reportedly told the court: "As for the crimes that the prosecution has charged me with, I understand them, I admit to them and I am repentant for them. For the party organisation, people and relatives that have cared for me, I want to say here, sincerely, I'm very, very sorry, I've let you down."
Once again, a disappointed public found themselves no wiser after the trial. As the court testimony makes clear, one key fact stood out in the description of his downfall from powerful vice-mayor and top crime-buster to beleaguered asylum seeker and prisoner: after he reported to Bo that Gu was suspected of killing someone, he was "angrily rebuked and slapped in the face by the officer".
This was the slap that changed the course of history. Yet, during the two-day trial, Bo's name was not even mentioned; court documents spoke instead of "the Chongqing party committee's main person responsible at the time". This is how we know we've been treated to a show.
Apart from Gu and Wang, other people convicted for their involvement in the murder of a British businessman and its subsequent cover-up all said they would not appeal. They had been sentenced to between five and 11 years in jail for aiding the murder, and/or for forging, hiding and destroying evidence of the crime. They were Zhang Xiaojun, an aide of Gu's; Guo Weiguo , the deputy chief of Chongqing's Public Security Bureau; Li Yang, the chief of the bureau's criminal section; Wang Pengfei, the chief of the bureau's technical detection team; and Wang Zhi, the deputy police chief of Shapingba district.
We can't conclude this was an unjust trial on the sole basis of their decision not to appeal. But given the incomplete court statements, the close co-operation between all parties involved in the trial and the muzzling of the media, we have reason to believe that under-the-table deals were struck and the trial was no more than a political show.
At the end of the National People's Congress meetings in March, Premier Wen Jiabao told reporters that the investigation into Wang Lijun's unauthorised visit to the US consulate would be thorough and pledged that its findings would "stand the test of law and history".
Finally, here was a rare opportunity for change, some people thought, and they dared to hope that this outgoing government would seize on it to carry out political and judicial reform. No doubt, today, they feel like they were the ones who were slapped. As it turned out, Wang's indiscretion was only a minor glitch in the secretive power play that is Chinese politics.
A Jiang Qing-style rant in court would never be allowed today to mar the proceedings; the government has become more skilful in handling this type of trial since the time of the Gang of Four. In those days, Beijing had to deploy all the propaganda tools at its disposal to vilify Jiang - through the media, in books and on stage. Today, all it needs to do is negotiate with the lead characters behind the scenes then make public the "harmonised outcome" through a gagged media. It's all under control.
Many people still believe political reform will happen, arguing that a government confident in its power would be confident in pushing for change. Why should it? Where's the motivation for reform in a time of stability? One answer is: a desire to serve the people wholeheartedly. And that's the idealists talking.
Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese