Bo Xilai

After Bo, China's political dysfunction just as opaque

Kerry Brown says by presenting the Bo Xilai saga as a sorry tale of one family's crime, China's political elders prevented light being shone onthe opaque dealings of the Communist elite

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 September, 2013, 10:10am

Bo Xilai has been tried, found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. That, in the normal order of things, should be the end of the matter. Barring profound change in the political habits of the Communist Party in dealing with those once in power who are felled, Bo will spend the rest of his life silenced. Maybe in the future, the world will be rewarded with his own words smuggled out as they were for Zhao Ziyang , giving his full, final account of what happened. But his ability to directly influence Chinese politics is over.

What do we know now more than we did when the Bo saga started, over 18 months ago? We already knew that elite Chinese politics was a highly tribal, often brutal and extremely competitive world, in which the stakes were high. We knew that the outcome of trials that involved highly prominent figures like Bo were handled almost wholly according to political considerations, and that whatever judicial process pursued would be tightly managed and the outcome dubious. We knew Bo was regarded with some trepidation by his colleagues and that he had limited support in the upper echelons of party leadership.

The only red line seems to be not to alienate too many of those in the same privileged club

The events of these past few months do nothing to change any of these issues. Despite the excitement of the trial last month and the drama around Bo's affair, in the end it merely reinforces issues which were already known. The Chinese elite act according to rules they have themselves devised, and the only red line seems to be not to alienate too many of those in the same privileged club. Bo's real problem was probably this lack of true support among those around him.

One of the new great "what ifs" of Chinese politics now is what would have happened had Gu Kailai never been involved in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in November 2011. Would Bo then have enjoyed unhindered passage into the Politburo Standing Committee and perhaps even been made one of the key figures? The consensus before his fall was that Bo was too important a player to be left outside. Would other incidents have been manufactured to ensure that he did not finally make it? Would his inclusion have caused a true split in the leadership? Would it have pitted the elite deciders against each other at a sensitive and crucial moment in the Communist Party's leadership transition?

We will never know the answer to these questions now. All we can deduce from the trial and sentencing is that the gravest crimes in modern China are political. Bo shamed the party, the main accusation seemed to go, and fatally did not control the key people around him. Wang Lijun and Gu, for separate reasons, did not come off well in the trial process. Wang had to suffer Bo's scathing attack, and was up against his own unsavoury and bullying prior record. Gu was not even present in the court, and was easily dismissed as malleable and unstable. All the key narratives of a dysfunctional dynastic family were well in place, and harked back to the sort of shenanigans under Mao Zedong four decades before.

What was less explored during Bo's extended hearing was precisely how he was connected to the Heywood affair, beyond his link to Gu and Wang. No evidence was presented of his collusion, at least from the tightly edited transcripts issued from Jinan during the hearing. Nor was it clear precisely how he had "abused power" beyond proving himself unable to keep tabs on the business and personal affairs of people close to him.

For his peers, therefore, Bo was a poor judge of character. The most vulnerable link any Chinese leader can have in such a system full of tribal loyalties and clan interests is the family one, and the ability to at least control this up to a point is a key skill of the modern Chinese leader. Bo evidently failed there, at least according to this trial.

His treatment raises questions, however, that will not go away even after he has been sentenced. The first was the nature of his corruption, and precisely why the party authorities had not known or not acted on his supposed larceny from over a decade ago, but managed in fact to allow him further promotion. Does this not raise questions about the very ways in which the party organisation department and others assess and keep tabs on leaders?

Then there is the interesting issue of what Bo himself never said in his defence. He performed well, dealing only with the specific claims around his wife, his family and his underlings. But he never questioned the right of the party to treat him in this way, or raised any of the issues of his treatment being different because of who he was and who he had alienated. He never breathed a word in his defence about how the party had expelled him and damned him because of his threat to some of the key political elites, even though this would have been a valid issue to raise. According to them, he was there to answer criminal charges, not for any political reason, and it was on these grounds that he defended himself.

Bo showed himself to the very end a faithful and loyal servant of the party, the same party that his father had suffered so deeply to bring to power and maintain there, and at the hands of which he had seen his own mother die and himself consigned to prison over four decades before, during the Cultural Revolution. This gave Bo a certain pathos and tragic dignity in his final appearance, but it also means that his fall and demise are perhaps less meaningful than might appear. They do not challenge the parameters of the way the party behaves and its exercise on power. They just reinforce the impression that this is an organisation that is ruthless, and, in the case of Bo, heartless.

No one won in Jinan, and the Communist Party has just consigned the most gifted politician of his generation, and someone who showed evidence of being able to bring about transformative change, to life in prison.

Kerry Brown is executive director of the China Studies Centre and professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney