Bo Xilai

What does Bo Xilai’s trial mean for other graft cases?

As Bo Xilai is likely to sink into obscurity behind bars, his legacy will be the extensive fallout from the nation's worst political scandal in decades

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 5:41am

The trial of Bo Xilai is the last nail in the coffin of the once-high-flyer's political life, as the former Politburo member and Chongqing party chief disappears into the obscurity of widely expected long-term imprisonment.

But the new leadership under President and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping, now has to face the fallout from the mainland's worst political scandal in decades and controversial political legacy of the former politician, which some analysts say is likely to be felt for many years to come.

Despite the charge against Bo being apolitical - embezzlement, bribery and abuse of power - many observers believe that the real reason behind the former demagogic communist leader's disgraced downfall is political.

They say Bo fell foul of the central powers as a result of his populist strategies aimed at drumming up political support for his personal ambitions.

They also point out that only the trouble surrounding his wife Gu Kailai, and former close associate Wang Lijun, have made it possible for his political enemies in Beijing to take him down.

"I agree with the assessment that a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion and the main remaining issue is the severity of the punishment," said Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

"Yet it is what is left out of the trial that prompts thought on the current political situation," said Yang.

To avoid political controversy, the leadership apparently shifted the focus of the trial to Bo's suspected economic crimes. Efforts were also made to showcase the politically charged trial as a sign of progress towards transparency and the establishment of "rule of law", as the government made an unprecedented move to allow the court to release detailed transcripts of testimony on its official microblog and gave the defiant former politician the chance to mount his feisty defence in public.

Some analysts said that such arrangements had opened new possibilities on how a senior corrupt official can be treated, a legacy that was also likely to test the mainland's new leaders.

"The trial has raised as many questions as it has provided answers, which will test the government's promise to promote judicial independence and justice," said Zhang Sizhi, a leading lawyer who defended Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Zedong. Zhang defended Jiang in the famous 1980 trial on crimes of treason of the "Gang of Four" who controlled most of the power during the latter stages of the Cultural Revolution.

Xigen Li, associate professor in the media and communication department of City University of Hong Kong, said Bo's trial was just a showcase.

"It will in no way affect either the political or legal system in China," said Li, adding that it was not fundamentally different from previous big cases (the Gang of Four; Chen Xitong, the former mayor of Beijing removed from office on corruption charges in 1995; and Chen Liangyu, the former mayor of Shanghai who was dismissed in 2006 over alleged corruption related to the misuse of money in the city's social security fund).

"Such a case may arise from the system again," Li said.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in England, said he did not see the trial as breaking much new ground. "What has changed is the technology, which enabled the Xi government to allow the approved transcript to be released with little time-lag," Tsang said.

It is believed that the live blog was censored and some sensitive scripts redacted.

Tsang said that, as to the revelation of the nature of the corrupt lifestyle enjoyed by Bo's family, if the former Politburo member merely accepted and not challenged the evidence, the details would not have been revealed, and in such a dramatic way.

"How many people in China will believe that the Bo family only squeezed one or two tycoons to fund their lavish lifestyle? How many will believe that Bo represents the worst among the top Chinese Communist Party elite? How many will fail to see it for what it is, namely, that this is just what the party leadership wanted them to see?" Tsang asked.

"Up until this point, despite the carefully calibrated defiance of Bo, the party is still in control and is presenting the trial as it would like. In this sense the party is passing the test," Tsang said.

Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said that in some ways Bo's trial was a little like that of the "Gang of Four" - some of his comments had been like those of the feisty Jiang Qing who also did not go down without a major fight.

"So I am not quite sure this is all as groundbreaking as it looks. To me, it shows that the new leadership has felt confident enough to give his trial this sort of time and profile, and that they feel that this serves their long-term interests in making out that they are more into process and justice," Brown said.

Brown said it was also clear that Bo had just fought his attackers and not lashed out at the system as a whole and started questioning it.

"In that sense, it helps this idea that the whole issue has been about criminal deeds and not about any political issues," Brown said.

"Thus the potentially most far-reaching, if ironic, legacy from Bo's trial would be to have the authorities apply the same treatment to other trials in terms of transparency and fairness of the trial procedure," Yang said.

He said that, given the circumstances, the presiding judge at the Jinan court set an exemplary example of how to lead a trial and especially in allowing Bo's team to mount a spirited defence.

"If this model is replicated, China would have made significant progress in promoting the rule of law," Yang said.

The trial might also be designed to demonstrate the leadership's commitment to tackling corruption among the high-ranking "tigers" within the party's ranks.

But analysts believe Bo was seeking a promotion to the inner-most Politburo Standing Committee at last year's once-in-a-decade power transition. And Bo's actions were an effort to challenge and possibly usurp Xi's first-among-equals status on the body.

Tsang said the trial would not be enough to satisfy the anti-corruption sentiments in the country, but it would "mark 'the bringing down of a tiger', as Xi promised when he rose to the top". "Few will be fooled, but it's still better than not seeing this at all," Tsang said.

Li, of City University, said the trial would not have an alarming effect on corrupt officials because cases like Bo's could be manipulated to the point that the interests of the parties involved reached a balance.

"The case does allow corrupt officials to learn how to deal with their own material and monetary interests more tactically under the current situation," Li said.

Bo's real legacy is that the former leader took bold action to nullify a slew of party norms as he waged a public campaign for a senior leadership position.

He advocated egalitarianism and launched his heavy-handed, and often extrajudicial, approach to organised crime. He ran the megacity like a mafia boss. The trial and the awaited verdict cannot annul Bo's political legacy, which, according to some analysts, represents a new era of elite dissent within the ruling hierarchy.

"That is likely to haunt China's new leadership for some time," said Zhang Lifan , a political affairs analyst formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Zhang said the conclusion of Bo's trial did not in any way put an end to a debate initiated by the former Chongqing party secretary.

Prior to his fall from grace, clashes played out publicly between Bo and other political peers, in particular his predecessor and then-Guangdong party chief Wang Yang, over conflicting development models and social policy.

Despite his ousting, Bo's political alliances and enemies continue to be the main players on the mainland's political stage. Analysts point out that Bo's two successors Zhang Dejiang and Sun Zhengcai, are political heavyweights who have shown no sign of rolling back the big-ticket construction projects and social welfare programmes that made Bo something of a local hero.

The charismatic son of a Mao-era revolutionary hero, Bo had been considered one of the Communist Party's rising political stars until his disgraceful departure in March last year.

Brown said the leaders feared that Maoist comments in Bo's trial would lead into political territory and raise questions about the attractiveness of the former Politburo member's policies over those of other leaders of the time.

"It is better for the party to have a salacious distracting trial like this with lots of gossipy drama and theatre rather than something that looks like Bo presenting the merits of his political position, and then starting to state what so far has been unstated - that he is there more for the political threat he represents than for the misdeeds of his family members," Brown said.

Yang, of University of Chicago, said "both sides studiously avoided bringing in Bo's record in Chongqing, both for good or bad".

"It is as if the top leadership decided not to make the trial a referendum on Bo's rule in Chongqing," Yang said.

Yang said that although it was known that Bo accomplished much in helping Chongqing develop, the city was saddled with a great amount of debt (though many other cities are in the same boat, if not on the same scale).

And although his anti-crime campaign helped to reduce petty crime, it rode roughshod over the rule of law in many cases.

Still, many believe the mainland's present leaders are facing risks in confronting the precedent set by Bo's campaign for higher office. And also many ordinary citizens supported Bo's Maoist policy.

"Through his leadership in Chongqing, Bo quashed party norms against the airing of any dissenting views and the implementing of policies that ran counter to that of the party's central seat of power," said Zhang Ming , a professor of political science at Renmin University.

"As a princeling, he also had challenged the party's public position and its historic traditions."

The government has to deal with the popular support for Bo's social welfare-oriented agenda, as it was a challenge to the failure of policy under the administration of former president and party chief Hu Jintao, , and premier Wen Jiabao .

The so-called "New Leftists" have gained increasing support in various parts of the country as evidenced by the revival of Maoism. Some of Bo's supporters even risked being arrested in order to show their support for the former Chongqing party secretary to demonstrate, with posters of the Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong, outside the court in Jinan - the venue for the trial.

This debate over political and economic policies has also intensified recently, led by some conservative party ideologues and think-tank scholars who called for Maoism to be championed and advocated a greater state role in economic planning to reduce China's income gap.

"The public focus on Bo is not just about his economic crimes and his ultimate punishment, as most ordinary people believe that most top officials are corrupt," said Zhang Ming. "But they will also assess the whole story on whether Bo's saga could make any difference to China."

Zhang Ming said the new administration had to take action to address the fallout from the Bo saga by giving their responses to his policies and political legacy.