A stern-looking Wen Jiabao told hundreds of journalists at a press conference last March that the Communist Party stood by its judgment on the Great Cultural Revolution, passed in late 1978 at the historic Third Plenum of the 11th Party Congress.
“History tells us,” said the then premier, “all practices in line with the people’s interests must also take lessons from history, and stand the test of history themselves.”
Looking back on this moment as we do now, a week after Bo Xilai’s trial, we can be almost certain that those words were Wen’s improvisation on the spot, without the endorsement of the Party leadership. In the eyes of Wen’s detractors who dismiss him as “the greatest actor in China”, he was just putting up another piece of drama, with just one year to go in his tenure as premier. But he did convince many people that, faced with the choice of either returning to the dark days of the Cultural Revolution or continuing with reforms, the Party leadership had made a painful yet resolute decision.
But the five-day trial of Bo Xilai has thrown that conviction into question. Those expecting to see history in the making instead were treated to melodrama. There were no political signals or messages of reformists triumphing over conservatives, nor even of one political faction crushing another.
Instead, Bo Xilai, despite his ostentatious defiance in court, came off as a human sinner. He didn’t toe the wrong political line, he didn’t join the wrong camp. All his crimes were a result of his failure to properly manage his family affairs, which, in his own words, “caused damages to the Party and the nation in terms of influence”. Many still believe that, had Bo’s former right-hand man Wang Lijun not lost his nerve and defected to the US consulate, Bo would continue to enjoy the limelight as a member of the Politburo, maybe even get a promotion to the top power club of the Politburo Standing Committee; and his marriage to Gu Kailai would still enjoy the envy of millions as the perfect match of pedigree, wisdom and compassion.
One of the top mantras in the Party’s fight against corruption is that “Party cadres should keep their family members on a tight leash.” To be sure, Gu Kailai failed to observe the model behaviour expected of a leader’s wife. But on the other hand, with enormous political power well applied, her crimes could have been completely covered up and smoothed over. Her alleged solicitation and reception of bribes in exchange for political favours don’t stand out as particularly egregious compared with other cases previously reported; nor does she seem the greediest of all people.
Even though the fact that Gu killed Neil Heywood with her own hands landed her in a lot of trouble in the months that followed, this wouldn’t necessarily have got out of control. Heywood’s wife, for example, was effectively coerced and silenced.
There were, of course, Gu’s many alleged affairs. They may have seemed messy, but Bo Xilai’s testimony also made it clear that he was confident enough that these scandals could be kept within his household. He wasn’t being cocky. At any point in the history of the People’s Republic, there were never a lack of rumours about corruption or scandals involving top Communist Party leaders and their family members. However, no party leader has ever fallen out of grace just because of sex scandals alone.
Wang Lijun’s defection, on the other hand, was a complete accident.
If the trial made any fact clear, it was that the Communist Party was treating the case as a “family incident”. Bo’s prime crime was his failure to control his family and his cronies, allowing some minor family scandals to spiral out of control and explode onto the world stage. For that, he must be held responsible. But as for the Party’s own “family scandals”, nobody needs to know. The shocking accusations and robust defence in Jinan may have seemed dramatic enough, but in fact everybody was carefully treading this fine line. Ironically, both Bo’s critics and his supporters failed to see through the ruse from the very beginning.
They were dying to see an ideological battle in court over whether Bo’s campaign of “red songs and strike against organised crimes” were to be upheld or denounced; some had hoped more details of corruption involving higher-ranking party leaders would emerge; others secretly wished the secret factional wars in the Party’s top echelon would be revealed. They were all miserably disappointed by the end of the five-day trial.
At the end of his trial, Bo praised the court for “giving ample opportunity for both prosecution and defence to express their opinions, and using Weibo to publicise court transcripts.”
“This shows the Central Committee’s determination to clarity the facts and seek justice, and gives me more confidence in the future of China’s judiciary,” he said. He apparently wasn’t just conceding his defeat. As a princeling, he knows as well as his wife does that the Party would always treat them as one of their own, and differently from ordinary people. Had it not come to such an irreparable situation, the Party wouldn’t throw them under a bus.
The trial has angered many people, making them wonder how top leader Xi Jinping could have given Bo such an opportunity to play a wronged hero. Bo’s cunning and skillful defence “gave the enemy more confidence and made the righteous look small,” they say. How naive and conceited they are.
Since his ascension to power, Xi has been far more enthusiastic in disarming the Constitution than fighting corrupt party seniors like Bo. He knows better than anybody who his real friends and foes are.
Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese.