Bo Xilai case exposes challenges of a modernising China

Hu Shuli says a wealthier, more open society needs the institutions to match, not least strong rule of law and a system of checks and balances

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 7:23am

Bo Xilai will soon face trial for corruption under the glare of the international media spotlight. Late last month, China's Communist Party formally expelled him after an internal investigation and turned him over to the judicial authorities for criminal prosecution.

Across the country, government departments are holding up Bo's case for study. We can only hope that it will have a positive, far-reaching impact on the fight against corruption and act as a deterrent to other officials.

According to the official investigation, Bo shared many of the traits of corrupt officials. He abused his power for private gain; he took bribes, as did his family members; he had extramarital affairs with numerous women. And like the other cases, corruption became a Bo family affair and proved to be no barrier in his steady rise to power.

Sure, there was an element of chance in his exposure. But his downfall, and that of others before him, really has its seeds in a flaw of the system: as a top party cadre, Bo's powers were not subject to effective checks.

Despite the similarities, Bo was unique in one important way - he was skilled in public relations. He knew how to manipulate public opinion and successfully distinguished himself as a populist, "politically correct" leader.

This was especially apparent during his term as party secretary of Chongqing. There, he promoted the revival of a "red" culture - including the singing of revolutionary songs - to demonstrate his revolutionary spirit. He portrayed himself as a people-loving, crime-fighting hero, and invested government policies with political meaning. Central government policy initiatives were turned into his largesse to the people to encourage gratitude and idolatry. There was even a song dedicated to him, in discomfiting shades of Cultural Revolution fervour.

In the interests of social order, fighting crime is both necessary and correct. But we know now that Bo's high-profile crackdown on organised crime itself infringed the law. Bo and his officers abused their power and trampled on people's rights.

Worse, Bo's wife, Gu Kailai murdered a foreigner, and the police chief Wang Lijun and a number of senior police officers tried to cover up her crime. Bo himself was found to have "abused his power and made grave mistakes" over the murder and was suspected of having broken the law. The facts of Bo's wrongdoing made a joke of his public persona.

He proved to be more deceitful than the other corrupt officials, and more arrogant in his flagrant disregard for party discipline and the laws of the land. He should also be held responsible for stirring up political fanaticism and reviving ultra-leftist thought that worryingly recalled Cultural Revolution excesses.

It's clear today that Bo managed to build a large and complex web of vested interests over the years, from Dalian to Chongqing, with himself at the centre, in full control. He treated his subordinates like servants, to be humiliated at will. He treated the people like fools, to be pandered to and manipulated for their gratitude and loyalty.

In other words, Bo was just the opposite of the good and righteous leader he pretended to be. He and his family thought themselves above the law. Stripped bare, we see the dark, feudal heart of this 21st-century case.

Bo's failings reflected the political, economic and social realities of a modernising China. As the country struggles to transform itself, not only do we see large loopholes in the system of checks and balances for top leaders, but the foundations of China's socialist market economy and the rule of law are still weak. It was the perfect environment for exploitation by someone with Bo's ambition, arrogance and greed. And indeed he did.

The slap Bo gave Wang Lijun was said to have been the spark that led to the exposure of their crime. But, even if that didn't happen, Bo's downfall would have been a matter of time.

The fallout from Bo's case is serious. With the start of the trial, more details will be made known to the public. For now, it should serve as a warning that China must beware of ambitious politicians making use of people's discontent for their own gain, undermining reform efforts and the rule of law in the process. They will lead China to ruin.

Bo served us all a painful lesson. Thirty years of reform and opening up has brought China tremendous success, but also created many problems in society. Its people are desperate for solutions. Chinese leaders should heed the call for change and deepen their reform efforts.

Their priority now is to continue fighting corruption and speed up the reform of the economic and political systems, particularly the legal system. "All people are equal before the law" must be more than a slogan, and the system of checks and balances strengthened.

Bo showed us that going backwards or standing still are not options for China; only by striking out can it thrive.

This article is provided by Caixin Media, and the Chinese version of it was first published in Century Weekly magazine.