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Bo Xilai case underlines top priority of China's political elite - unity

Kerry Brown says despite 30 years of Chinese reforms and opening up, the handling of disgraced party leaders continues to be dictated by political needs, not public accountability

Bo Xilai

One of the stark truths about elite Chinese politics uncovered by the remarkable fall of former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai is that, in contemporary China, despite all the recent excitement about the power of social networks and new communication tools, public opinion is neither well known nor important. Those who have dealt with China since the late 1960s find themselves in a comfort zone when they look at how Bo has been handled compared to previous great fellings.

The similarities are greater than the innovations. In the past, for Chen Liangyu in the 2000s, Chen Xitong in the 1990s, Zhao Ziyang in the 1980s, and even Lin Biao in the early 1970s, there was a period of silence before devastating cases were built about the incompetence, treachery and venality of the targeted figures. Finally, they were consigned to a zone of uncomfortable silence, where the mere mention of their name was regarded as bad manners.

It seems that Bo is already rapidly heading towards this fate. Perhaps the sole difference is that, under Mao Zedong , they were likely to die; after him, the final punishment was house detention.

Some might argue that 30 years of reform and opening up have meant that the party has had to adopt quasi-legal means of dealing with Bo and his wife. The court case in Hefei , Anhui , against Gu Kailai at least gave some idea that there had been an investigation, and we have seen an attempt to present semi-publicly the case against Gu, in particular, the charge of murder which she admitted. By implication, the case against her husband is being prepared.

The fact that Bo's name went unmentioned during Gu's court case probably shows that the main strategy now is delinking. Her misdemeanours are going to be presented as separate from his. The most one can conclude from this is that, after the initial shock, the party elite - even at this sensitive time - feel comfortable enough with how this issue is being handled that they are going to desist from all-out character assassination against their ex-colleague. They can just let this once-populist figure sink into obscurity.

Does public opinion play any role in this at all? Is the party going through this semi-legal process in order to take heed of the need to convince the public in China that, at heart, this is not about politics but real misdemeanours? Are they really trying to act in accordance with the words of Wen Jiabao when he spoke at the National People's Congress this year, of the imperative of holding everyone, no matter who they were, to the law, rather than political standards?

If that is the aim, then one has to conclude that what was offered in the claims made against Gu during her one-day hearing were a poor effort.

The refusal of the courts to allow the hearing to be more public was one bad portent, despite there being two British officials present. The confusing reports of the evidence offered at the hearing only add to the problems.

The story of British businessman Neil Heywood threatening Gu and Bo's son Guagua while in Britain and detaining him, when he apparently seems not even to have been there, is only one of the more striking issues. Indeed, the trial has raised more questions than answers. Surely the point of an impartial trial is to do the opposite.

All this has shown so far is that, in this case, with its complexities and the powerful people involved, politics and politics alone is in control. In some senses, whether Gu did kill Heywood, and what Bo might have known about all of this, has already become unknowable. The whole case has acquired a thick sheen of political treatment, and to see it separate from this is now next to impossible.

The central political consideration of the elite in the Communist Party is pretty clear. They have to maintain unity, orchestrate a smooth leadership transition, and maintain policy continuity to deliver on the critical issue of economic growth. If that is under control, everything else is secondary. So the quaint idea that the party authorised the action against Gu, and then Bo, to demonstrate to the public that they are being dealt with dispassionately and according to the law, is untenable.

Was there really any chance that this process might lead to a complete vindication of Gu and her walking free from court, because the case against her was unclear and unproven? Legally, she may well have been innocent until proven guilty. Politically, her case was decided the moment Wang Lijun walked into the US consulate in Chengdu with his claimed dossier, in early February.

Due to the labours of censors, even with dense social media and new information networks, it is hard to hear clearly what the public consensus in China might be over this case. Are there significant constituents who believe that Bo is being treated badly? Is there a vast undercurrent of support for him, which might boil up as and when charges against him are made clear? Is this the reason the party has maintained its silence, trying to read the public mood before choosing the way to go against him?

It is impossible to prove, but one can only sense that, in the end, the pragmatic leadership at the heart of the party only goes on what they know - and that means the views, ideas and interests of the people sitting around the table with them. Public opinion is not central to them, and in many ways is better left unknowable and unknown.

The central issue from the moment Wang Lijun went and supposedly spilled the beans in Chengdu has, therefore, only ever been about how a group of nine people have maintained unity among themselves. What the rest of the world inside and outside thinks - as this curious trial in Hefei made clear - was only ever, at best, an afterthought. And so far, at least, it is working.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Unity above all