Bo Xilai

In China, justice serves the cause of party politics

Steve Tsang says the rules of the game held firm in Bo Xilai's life sentence and treatment of his son

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 3:27am

The sentencing of Bo Xilai to life imprisonment should come as no surprise. It confirms the Communist Party under Xi Jinping remains a consultative Leninist system characterised by governance through collective leadership, an obsessive focus on maintaining party unity and the careful management of public opinion.

Regardless of the crimes Bo may have committed, the dramatic defiance he displayed throughout the court proceedings rendered only one outcome possible: Bo would spend the rest of his life in detention, yet escape execution.

Politics, not justice, necessitated this decision. If Bo had been less combative in his defence, contrite even, a lighter sentence, possibly as low as 15 years, may have been handed down. But Bo sealed his own fate. Through a commitment to clear his name and a deliberate show of calculated resistance, he made his intention to stage a political comeback clear. Xi and his successors could not tolerate any leniency; there is no incentive for any of them to take a gamble on a figure like Bo.

A death sentence for a former Politburo member was out of the question. That would have implied a change in the fundamental, unspoken rules of the game for the top leadership post-Mao Zedong.

Given the volatility of politics under a consultative Leninist system, no top-level leader would dare implement such a change. After all, no one can be sure they will never be on the receiving end. Until Jiang Zemin, under whose leadership the party system was transformed, no party general secretary had ever ended his time in office in comfortable retirement and freedom.

The other silent code of conduct that governs party power struggles also appears to have been upheld; that the offspring of disgraced officials should be left alone. Thus, while Bo's personal wealth is to be confiscated, there is no indication that the family's overseas wealth that funds the expensive education and lifestyle of Bo's son in the US will be seized. Bo Guagua is safe, as no top leader in China wishes to set a precedent for going after the children of a toppled former comrade.

In the run-up to the sentencing, the court made it known that, in Bo's case, justice would not only be done but would be seen to be done. It is a reflection of how the party and the legislative system in China define their concept of justice.

In China, justice is done in accordance with the careful balancing of political needs by the leadership. It is presented in line with how the party feels it should be presented, far from the gaze of live TV cameras. Weibo feeds are carefully judged and surprises minimised.

Bo has now launched an appeal. He has nothing to lose by doing so, even though the reality of the political situation means the sentence cannot be altered. By appealing, he will emphasise his determination to stage a revival. There may not be any chance of that under the current political system.

But Bo is betting on the collapse of the regime in the coming decade or two and, should this happen, his courageous stand should place him in a strong position. There may not be grounds to suggest the system will collapse any time soon, but in Bo's predicament, is it not a reasonable bet to wage?

But his request to appeal may be denied. By putting Bo behind bars for life through the judicial process, the party is drawing a line under the case. The actual charges may not be accepted as having been proven. In a sense this is irrelevant to the outcome, as it was already dictated by political imperatives.

But the charges do matter. The manner in which the court handled the case and set out the specific charges reflected the priorities the Xi administration would like to project. Even though Bo was brought down before Xi rose to the top and announced his anti-graft drive, the central case against Bo revolved around corruption. And the court handed down the stiffest sentence available for someone of Bo's rank.

This is meant to signal to the people that Xi is serious about tackling abuse of power at the very top, even though corruption was probably the least of the failings responsible for Bo's downfall.

So the Bo case is over; the party machine is moving the drama onto the next act. Now we await the fate of former public security chief Zhou Yongkang , an ex-Politburo Standing Committee member now the subject of a high-profile party disciplinary investigation for corruption. The vultures are circling.

Steve Tsang is director of the China Policy Institute and professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham