Bo Xilai

After Bo Xilai, a fork in the road for China

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 1:42pm

The sentencing of Bo Xilai brings to a close China's biggest case since the televised trial of the Gang of Four more than 30 years ago. Five days of sensational allegations and defiant defence from the disgraced politician transfixed the nation. Though not televised, Bo's public trial was remarkably open, even if the authorities controlled coverage through a delayed internet feed. To help discredit a populist leader, these edited transcripts revealed egregious examples of elitist privilege including a french villa and private jet flights.

The spectacular downfall of a princeling has exposed a rift in the leadership. A life sentence ensures he will not make a comeback. But the trial left unanswered many questions about the rise and fall of the former party chief of Chongqing , who tried to advance ambition through an anti-crime campaign that perverted justice and abused human rights.

The implications will continue to be the subject of debate. Unlike other senior officials jailed for corruption, Bo's trial for embezzlement, bribery and abuse of power had a strong political context.

He was a flag-bearer of the country's left who tried to exploit a growing divide between rich and poor, and discontent, with a nostalgic, high-profile campaign for equality. Such maverick behaviour is not encouraged, though the leadership has tried to keep internal politics out of the case. The new leaders apparently intended to use Bo's trial as a sign of determination to fight corruption. They have since endorsed an investigation into Bo ally Zhou Yongkang , a former security tsar and Politburo Standing Committee member, once a top executive of China National Petroleum Corporation. It is the first time a current or former member of the Politburo Standing Committee has been probed for economic crimes.

Bo's case also defines a fork in the road at a critical juncture in China's rise. The leadership wanted to get it out of the way ahead of the third plenum of the Communist Party's 18th congress in November, the stage for setting key economic guidelines. The country faces two possible clear paths - to continue reform that reduces the role of government, leading ultimately to a market economy and the rule of law, or asserting a strong role for government through development of state capitalism. Bo may be guilty as charged, but his case highlights the enormous challenges facing the leadership and the importance of their decision on which path to follow.