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Bo Xilai

Chinese Communist "princeling" Bo Xilai, expected by many to take a key leadership position in the leadership transition of 2012, was expelled from the Communist Party in September after a career that saw him as Mayor of Dalian City, Minister of Commerce and Party Chief of the Chongqing municipality. His wife Gu Kailai received a suspended death sentence in August 2012 for murdering British business partner Neil Heywood. 

CommentInsight & Opinion

Why Bo Xilai won't go quietly

Minxin Pei says the relative openness of Bo Xilai's trial could have been the work of allies wishing to aid his fight for a political comeback. Indeed, such hopes may have inspired his feisty performance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 3:11am

As show trials go, the drama featuring Bo Xilai , the once-swaggering, media-savvy former Communist Party chief of Chongqing , veered anomalously into improvisation. Before the proceedings began, the conventional wisdom was that Bo's trial had been carefully scripted and rehearsed to portray a forlorn and penitent sinner confessing his crimes and apologising to the party.

But the historic five-day trial dispelled any notion that Bo would go quietly to his cell in Beijing's infamous Qincheng Prison, where China's fallen top leaders are incarcerated.

By appearing dignified, defiant and forceful, Bo sought to preserve his image among his allies

He challenged the prosecution vigorously, defending himself with a feistiness that surprised nearly all who read the transcripts released by the court in real time on the trial's first day.

Bo dismissed one of his accusers as having "sold his soul". He characterised testimony given by his wife, Gu Kailai , now serving a suspended death sentence for murdering the British businessman Neil Heywood in 2011, as "comical" and "fictional", and he called her "crazy".

Throughout the trial, Bo flatly denied most of the corruption charges, often professed ignorance of the facts, and claimed to be unable to recall any details of the matters in question.

He even retracted his confession to the party's anti-graft agency, blaming mental stress for his admission that he accepted bribes from a man he called "soulless" in court. In his closing statement, he dropped a bombshell: he claimed that Wang Lijun , his former police chief and henchman (and a "vile character"), was secretly in love with his wife.

The trial transcripts create an impression of a man who, had he not gone into politics, would have excelled as a trial lawyer. Bo made the prosecution look sloppy and incompetent.

However, anyone who believes that the courtroom drama in the provincial capital of Jinan will determine the trial's outcome (the verdict and sentence will be announced next month) is seriously mistaken. Party leaders have already decided that Bo is guilty and must spend years in jail.

A logical question to ask, then, is why the party allowed an unprecedented degree of openness at the trial. The two most recently purged Politburo members were tried in secret, as were Bo's wife and his former police chief.

The optimistic view is that China's new leadership wants to demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law and fairness. But that is a naive interpretation. While the trial proceedings on the first day were refreshingly open by Chinese standards, that quickly changed. Transcripts were not released in real time on subsequent days, and they omitted some crucial details (for example, Bo claimed that the party's representatives threatened to execute his wife and prosecute his son if he refused to co-operate).

Perhaps worried that Bo's defiant behaviour was winning the public-relations battle, the official media also launched a blitz, savaging Bo's character and all but pronouncing him guilty.

Even more disturbing, on the first day of the trial, the Chinese police formally arrested Xu Zhiyong , a human-rights lawyer who was leading a campaign to force mandatory disclosure of the wealth of senior officials and their family members. The Chinese government has also begun a ferocious crackdown on social media, arresting prominent activists on dubious charges.

So there must be a different - and more political - interpretation of the Chinese government's handling of Bo's trial. It is worth recalling that purging him was a deeply divisive affair at the party's highest levels. His patrons and allies could not save him, but they were well positioned to demand that his trial be conducted as openly as possible.

Given Bo's gift for dazzling an audience, his allies must have felt confident that a spirited defence would serve him well, both legally and politically.

Bo certainly did not disappoint. He could have grovelled his way through the trial, like other senior party officials brought down by corruption scandals, and as most defendants have done in the long, grim history of communist show trials beginning with Stalin.

But Bo apparently is not accepting his political demise as a final act - in his closing statement, he told the court that he wanted to keep his party membership (he was expelled anyway) - and a comeback calculus may well have motivated his spirited performance. Bo understands that he should not be perceived as a pitiful loser who gutlessly besmirches his honour.

By appearing dignified, defiant and forceful, Bo evidently sought to preserve his image among his allies and supporters as a strong leader. Denouncing himself in order to gain leniency - in a case that he portrayed as a grievous miscarriage of justice - would have made him look like a coward.

Bo may be heading to jail, but he retains some chance of political rehabilitation should things change dramatically in China. His botched - but riveting - trial may be over, but the Bo Xilai show will go on.

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Copyright: Project Syndicate


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What ever sentence Bo receives will be too lenient considering the crimes that he is guilty of. He is directly responsible for hundreds of deaths, if not more, of innocent Falun Gong practitioners by removing their organs while they were alive and then cremating the corpses. Heywood was helping him clean up his money. The heinous Chinese Communist Party was fully aware of his actions and condoned them until he was exposed and now they are playing the good guys. Yes, good guys who have murdered eighty million of their own people since 1949. Mao once said that he wanted to see China covered by a wave of red. He meant blood. This policy has never changed and the people of China are finally waking up to the fact that the CCP is a blood-thirsty cult.
Should not anyone accused of wrongdoing vigorously defend himself in a court of law if he believes in his innocence and the justification for his actions? Although it is perfectly alright for an academic China "expert" to speculate about and read depth into a fallen politician's court behavior, it is simply unlikely that Bo, at 64, has any chance of a political comeback.
Jeffrey: Yours is just one perspective out of many. Your reading of reports of organ removal while still alive is disputable because they most likely were supplied by the Falun Gong practitioners who are very eager to demonize the CCP for their rout in China. Your reading of Mao's use of "red" in "China covered by a wave of red" as meaning "blood" is farcical. Write to MacFarquhar and see if he will agree with you. As for characterizing the CCP as blood-thirsty and heinous, my take is completely different from yours. They wanted to do a great service for their nation but ended up on several important occassions performing a great disservice, much like the Japanese nationalists who decided to attack the Pearl Harbor in 1941. This is why, by the way, the war dead are still highly honored in Japan, whether or not they are judged "war criminals" according to certain perspectives. Pure evil never can have a place in national or international politics, so I suggest that you do not use an absolutist lens in viewing political events.


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