Economy, Talking Point

Trying times for Bo

Drama beckons as princeling politician faces trial and likely life sentence


Once one of China’s most powerful men, Bo Xilai has been charged with “huge” corruption

July 27, 1966 was a significant day for China’s Communist Party, marking as it did the start of the most senior leadership purge in its history. On the day itself few noticed its importance. But as Harvard historian Roderick MacFarquhar points out, that sunny July morning was the last in which Liu Shaoqi would get a positive mention in the influential Party publication Reference News.

Liu’s press was about to get very bad indeed.

At the time Liu was both China’s president and deputy chairman of the Party. Perhaps more importantly he had been anointed as Mao Zedong’s successor just five years earlier. That was a natural choice, since Liu was one of the big guns of the regime. After all, both he and Mao had joined the Party in its founding year 1921 and together they had suffered through the Long March and brought about the 1949 revolution after defeating Chiang Kai-shek in the country’s civil war.

But more recently their relations had strained. Liu had fallen out with Mao when he saw the death and destruction brought about by the Great Leap Forward. He ended it, setting China’s economy (briefly) on a saner course. Now Mao was readying to take his revenge: his Cultural Revolution would bring about Liu’s final downfall.

From July 28 onwards Mao’s machinations would get progressively more hostile. At the Party plenum in August 1966, Liu’s work report was interrupted angrily by Mao – an ominous sign. Soon afterwards there was a vicious denunciation (on Mao’s orders) from General Lin Biao. Lin reeled off 23 indictments against Liu, some dating back to Liu’s “right opportunist errors” in the 1940s. Liu was demoted during the plenum and labelled the “biggest capitalist roader in the Party”. A year later he was arrested and removed from all Party posts before being formally expelled in 1968. At the Ninth Party Congress the following year he was further denounced as “a criminal traitor, enemy agent and scab in the service of imperialists and modern revisionists”. Abused by his Red Guard jailers and denied medicine for his diabetes and pneumonia, Liu died later that year.

For the Chinese public it was an unexpected and spectacular fall. A man that propaganda had portrayed as a founding father was now a villain. But confusing as it was to ordinary Chinese, for senior Party cadres what had happened was obvious enough. In a purely legal sense the case against Liu was non-existent: his purge was the inevitable outcome of losing a power struggle with Mao, whose authority he had sought (and failed) to weaken in the early 1960s.

Politics, of course, can be brutal but in a one-party state the line between success and failure is often absolute. Losing a power struggle does not mean retiring to a country house and writing your memoirs. It often means oblivion.

Inevitably Liu’s purge draws comparison with the recent ousting of Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing Party boss. Last Thursday Bo was formally charged with taking bribes (“extremely large amounts”), embezzling public funds and the abuse of power. Such cases are hardly unusual – there have been many corrupt officials jailed in recent years. But what makes this one significant is Bo’s stature within the Party firmament as the princeling son of Bo Yibo, one of the “eight immortals” and another founding father (Bo senior joined the Party in 1925). Jettisoning Bo Xilai into oblivion is arguably the most sensitive Party purge since Liu’s removal. Indeed, until Bo was detained by police last year many thought the toppling of someone of his background – red royalty – was unthinkable.

Can Bo expect the death penalty?

This is the central point of speculation. The likely answer is ‘no’ based on the earlier trials of his wife and his ‘consigliere’ Wang Lijun. Both avoided a death sentence.

Almost a year ago Gu Kailai – Bo’s spouse – was found guilty of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood. She was given a suspended death sentence and currently resides in Qincheng, a special prison used to incarcerate disgraced members of the Party elite.

In September Wang was also sentenced. He got 15 years in prison for defection, bribery and “bending the law for selfish ends”. The former Chongqing police chief could also have been sentenced to death – based on his crimes – but got a more lenient sentence by offering incriminating evidence against his former boss and Gu. (For the full story of Bo and Wang’s falling out, see WiC148.)

The trials were eagerly anticipated but it is Bo’s own sentencing that has loomed largest. His own trial – for which no date has been set – has been a long time coming.

How was Bo purged?

As with Liu Shaoqi, Bo’s own fall has proven a highly choreographed affair. At last year’s National People’s Congress, he made his final public appearance, with speculation rife that his chances of making it onto the powerful Standing Committee had been scuttled after his trusted fixer Wang had dramatically fled to the US consulate in Chengdu. Wang was subsequently arrested and taken to Beijing, where he was probed for what he knew of Bo’s activities.

All of this led analysts to look for signs of disfavour. For example, it was noted that Bo was the only member of the 25-person Politburo not present at a televised meeting of that organisation. Nor did it seem to bode well for him when Wen Jiabao – then prime minister – referred to the “mistakes of the Cultural Revolution”, a none-too-subtle dig at Bo’s ‘singing red’ Maoist campaigns.

Shortly afterwards, Bo was removed from his post as Party secretary of Chongqing, and on April 9 he was visited at home by senior figures from both the Organisation Department and the Central Disciplinary Commission and placed under arrest on corruption charges. The end of his career was finally confirmed by the state newspaper, the People’s Daily. “Bo Xilai’s conduct has seriously violated the Party’s disciplinary rules,” it proclaimed, “damaging the affairs of the Party and the country, and badly harming the image of the Party and the country. There are no citizens who are privileged before the law, and the Party does not allow privileged members who stand above the law.”

In Chinese terms, that’s what political oblivion reads like.

For the past 15 months Bo has been in detention, with his trial seemingly delayed for three reasons. An obvious rationale for stalling is the political calendar itself. China’s new leadership has just assumed power, with the transition period happening in two phases, beginning in November (Xi Jinping becoming Party boss) and only ending in March (Li Keqiang announced as premier). The politically explosive nature of Bo’s trial always suggested cause for delay while the new leaders bedded down their power bases.

A second reason may by the man himself – Bo is rumoured to have gone on a hunger strike and not proven overly cooperative. Letting him stew in detention for longer may be part of a strategy for wearing him down and ensuring he strikes a more contrite note in the court.

The third explanation for the delay: likely horsetrading going on within the Party over his sentence.

Theoretically, the death sentence remains a possibility. For Bo’s enemies it would have the advantage of closure, ensuring he does not emerge from jail intent on revenge. Still, it would be a brutal sentence and might even backfire. There are groups in the Party who would be angered by it, given their former ties to Bo and the awareness of his family pedigree. In these circumstances, the most likely outcome is a life sentence, with Bo released from jail only when he is too old to pose a political threat.

Why is Bo controversial?

Bo – whom WiC has mentioned in about 70 articles – is a divisive character. His proponents point to his charisma and popular touch. As a mayor, he’s had a major impact on the cities that he has run. As we pointed out in issue 169, a WiC visit to the northeastern city of Dalian emphasised his skills in civic planning. More recently, Bo put Chongqing on the international map, propelling its rapid economic development. Some of his policies proved popular on the national stage, especially those that seemed to redress some of the problem of growing inequality. Ridding Chongqing of its gangland bosses also won him plaudits, turning Bo into a national figure.

On the flipside, Bo’s enemies say he is a dangerous egomaniac. They point to corrupt deals with tycoon Xu Ming (also in custody and still awaiting trial) and they highlight his encouragement of leftist propaganda that brought back dark memories of the Cultural Revolution and its turmoil. Market reformers objected to his preference for state-led capitalism. And lawyers disliked the way that Bo flouted the rule of law, comparing his crackdown on Chongqing’s triads to the show trials of the Mao era.

The fundamental issue with Bo was his belief that he was fated to lead China. Some believe the seeds of his downfall can be traced back to the Party’s 16th National Congress in 2002 when he and fellow princeling Xi Jinping were vying for top jobs in the Politburo. Xi won and was then promoted to the powerful Standing Committee in 2007. Bo was sent off to run Chongqing.

But if the idea was to see Bo’s career head up a sidetrack, it didn’t work out. Refusing to concede defeat, he used the role to raise his profile and soon looked like a rival to Xi once more, pressing again for elevation onto the Standing Committee.

Rumours also surfaced – allegedly drawn from Wang Lijun’s confession – that Bo had been talking to military commanders in the country’s southwest, triggering wild speculation about his planning a coup attempt.

In the event, Bo’s power-plays didn’t pay off. Years of solitary contemplation may lie ahead, while Xi’s victory looks steadfast. In a move apparently timed with Bo’s trial in mind, former leader Jiang Zemin threw his support behind Xi and his succession last week. In a conversation with Henry Kissinger, Jiang stressed: “A big country like China needs a strong and capable leader. Xi Jinping is a very capable and talented state leader.” The remark suggested a final closing of the Party’s ranks around Xi, and an endorsement that he (and not Bo) was the right choice.

Reaction to the charges

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post described the case as the “nation’s biggest political scandal in years” with Bo accused of taking Rmb20 million ($3.26 million) of bribes and embezzling Rmb5 million. Although the charge sheet describes these as huge amounts, they seem rather minor in Chinese corruption terms (last month former railway minister Liu Zhijun was jailed for taking Rmb65 million in bribes – a total also derided by netizens as hugely understated). Nonetheless, leading Beijing lawyer Mo Shaoping told the SCMP that the outlook for the accused was a bleak one: “Given the allegations, Bo is likely to face the death sentence with reprieve, or life imprisonment, although technically the ‘huge amounts’ in bribes can lead to death by law”. Then he added a final caveat, warning that “such political cases are ruled by authorities rather than by law.”

China’s media – obviously under instruction – has faithfully reported Xinhua’s wording on the charges, adding no further comment. It was only on the country’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo that a wider range of views were offered, albeit only briefly in many cases.

As the Wall Street Journal’s Chinese language edition reports, the censors were soon deleting comments (one that asked “how many officials are innocent” was removed almost immediately). At the same time, government-sponsored ‘zombie’ weibo accounts were seeking to shape the message, trotting out remarkably similar sentiment, such as “the prosecution of Bo’s case is evidence of the Party’s anti-corruption efforts”. Despite this, the US newspaper noted that much of uncensored discussion was wider-ranging before it was deleted, pondering “whether in the end Bo is a criminal, a martyr or a victim”.

Well-known legal scholar Xu Xin wrote on his own weibo that Bo’s case was hardly a victory for the Chinese legal system, with the verdict already decided by the Party and unlikely to have any relationship to the hearing itself. ­­ Rule of law (or lack thereof) was also a common topic on weibo. WiC managed to read a few of these comments before the censors ‘harmonised’ them. For example, one blogger opined that without fair and impartial laws and procedural justice there could be no real stability and harmony in China. Another compared Bo’s closed-door trial to that of British monarch Charles I, which was open to the public. Bo’s trial, noted another, wouldn’t be televised and is being held in Shandong, a location seemingly chosen for having no relation to places where the alleged crimes took place.

The rough-and-tumble nature of Chinese politics was widely discussed online too. “He is just a loser in a power struggle. No officials in China are truly sacked because of corruption,” wrote one contributor.

Another noted: “Had Bo been the number one or two after the 16th National Congress, then one of his rivals might have been where he is today.”

From another blogger, the reaction was grimly pragmatic: “A corrupt official doing something practical is way better than a clean one doing nothing at all.” In fact, the comment hints at one thing that cannot be diminished from Bo’s legacy: whether working in Liaoning or in Chongqing, he was a politician who made things happen.

But while he was a ‘doer’ and had his share of admirers, Bo unquestionably had a darker side too. He considered himself above the law (hushing up the Heywood murder, for instance) and was prone to a cult of personality (in Dalian he built a museum largely dedicated to his achievements).

But by far his greatest sin insofar as other senior colleagues were concerned? Simply this: the charismatic Bo put his own personal ambitions ahead of Party cohesion. That made him a danger, and ultimately would prove his undoing.

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