Yesterday, the Jinan Municipal Court convicted Bo Xilai of his crimes and sentenced him to life in prison, bringing an end to China’s most sensational political scandal in a generation. Though Bo has appealed his suspension, this is just a formality: His life as a free man is over.
Like any major political event, it’ll take awhile before we understand the full ramifications of what the Bo Xilai trial means for China. But for now, it’s worth going back and remembering who Bo is, why he got into so much trouble, and what the consequences of his downfall are.
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When President Xi Jinping was preparing the ground for the trial and conviction of his princeling rival, Bo Xilai, sentenced to life in prison yesterday, he called China’s entire leadership together to launch a “rectification campaign.” Xi promised to save degenerate cadres and the Party itself by “vigorously” mobilizing the political machinery in a process of criticism, self-criticism and self-purification. He dubbed it the “Party Mass Line Education and Practice Movement,” to be overseen by a specially-convened small leadership group of the same name. The aim was to “cure the illness and save the patient,” said Xi, adding that the “life and death” of the Party was at stake.
The language, aims and structure of Xi’s ongoing rectification campaign are directly borrowed from Chairman Mao Zedong’s efforts to instill discipline and consolidate personal power at Yan’an, then the Communist Party base, in the early 1940s. Mao’s success hinged on having tight personal control of the internal security and propaganda apparatus, giving him the capacity to create an atmosphere of fear and panic and forcefully extract confessions. He used “special case groups” to root out and intimidate the patronage networks of perceived rivals until his power was unchallengeable.
These, ironically, were the techniques that Bo Xilai revived to transform the Communist Party in Chongqing and build a formidable personal power base there, striking terror inside the Party in ways that are still not widely understood. Now, Xi is applying the same underlying political logic to revitalize and impose his will over the world’s largest and most powerful political party, with some important innovations. And he is doing it by purging Bo.
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The trial of disgraced official Bo Xilai, the most anticipated political event in China in at least a decade, wrapped up Monday after five surprising and entertaining days — or four and a half more days than anyone had expected. No verdict has emerged — that’s supposed to come sometime in the next couple of weeks — but without a doubt Bo Xilai will be found guilty of corruption, abuse of power, and accepting bribes and sentenced to a lengthy term in prison. The verdict will mark the conclusion of one of China’s most intriguing political careers: Once thought to be a shoo-in for a spot on the Communist Party’s highest governing council, the 64-year old Bo may now spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Was Bo’s trial successful? As an act of theater, it was certainly riveting: testimony released during the case (by the Jinan Municipal Court, which published transcripts of the proceedings on its Sina Weibo microblog) revealed enough sex, violence, and intrigue to satisfy a Hollywood scriptwriter.
Read more. [Image: Reuters/Jinan Intermediate People’s Court]
In a piece published earlier this month in The Atlantic, Rebecca Liao states that contrary to the assumptions of most observers, the trial of Bo Xilai, the disgraced former Communist Party chief of Chongqing, is a “victory for the rule of law in China”. While fully acknowledging that the outcome of the trial is not in doubt, she argues that the Chinese government’s preparations for and propaganda about the trial show that it “now views the law as something to be navigated and not simply ignored.”
If only that were true. And in a sense, it’s surprising that it is not true. China has no separation of powers and so lawmaking is an internal function of government; in other words, the government can pretty much enact any law it wants. It can change any law it finds inconvenient, or pass any law it needs to justify some action, thus enabling it to say (truthfully!) that it is always following the law — should it wish to do so. And yet this is not what we actually see. Instead, we often see the government ignoring its own law — for example, in the extended (and utterly illegal) house arrest of Chen Guangcheng and Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia. The Bo Xilai case is no exception.
For one thing, the government is ignoring, not navigating, legal requirements when it denies Bo his choice of lawyer without any apparent legal basis. But even more glaring is this: The entire procedure on which the case against Bo has been built is lawless.
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For an event whose outcome is all but assured, the Bo Xilai trial — scheduled to begin in Jinan on Thursday — arrives with an unusual amount of fanfare. Bo is accused of bribery and abuse of power, and without question will be found guilty and sentenced to prison, probably for a very long time. The conviction will conclude one of China’s most dazzling political careers — as well as one of its most spectacular downfalls. As the Party Secretary of Chongqing, the dashing Bo engineered a populist revival of Mao-era culture as well as cracked down on organized crime, becoming a star destined for higher office. But a scandal involving the poisoning death of a British businessman, a crime for which Bo’s wife was found guilty, led to Bo’s expulsion from the Communist Party and ultimate indictment.
In the predictable world of Chinese criminal justice, Bo’s conviction is assured. But that doesn’t mean that his trial will be a dull, perfunctory exercise. In fact, there are plenty of reasons for the top levels of the Chinese government to be nervous — and that alone makes the proceedings worth paying attention to.
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On July 25, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, finally announced news that the country had waited over a year to hear: “Bo Xilai was indicted Thursday in Jinan, Shandong Province, for bribery, corruption and abuse of power.” With that, the Chinese Communist Party initiated the prosecution of the former Party Secretary of Chongqing, a man who had ambitions to lead China before his spectacular fall from grace last March.
In anticipation of Bo’s trial this month, observers have focused on two main angles: the significance of the trial for President Xi Jinping’s fight against corruption in the Party, and the fortunes of political factions that fought for months over Bo’s fate. The assumption is that, in China, politics and law are inseparable, and that, “trial of the century” hype aside, if there is a chance for Xi Jinping to implement the rule of law, Bo’s trial would not provide it.
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For China’s new generation of tech-savvy youth, who compose the bulk of the nation’s estimated 300 million Weibo users, the downfall of Bo Xilai is the largest political crisis they have witnessed. The sudden volatility of the official versions of truth on the story has left many of them deeply confused. Some see this as a victory for Weibo, which is moderated by censors but often too free-wheeling and fast-moving for them to maintain total control, over more traditional media, which is openly run by the state. “In this political drama that took place in Yuzhou [alternative name for Chongqing], all the media outlets were following Weibo. The power of social media is manifested here,” user Tujiayefu wrote. User Kangjialin agreed: ” ‘Rumor’ is the proof that mainstream media is now falling behind Weibo.” […]
China’s heavy-handed censorship may now actually accelerate the spread of rumors, which could be seen as more plausible precisely because they are censored. Chinese web users trying to figure out the most likely truth must speculate not only about the rumors themselves, but also about every move the government makes in response. Did the state order censors to crack down on a particular story because they want quell a false and potentially destabilizing rumor or because they want to prevent an uncomfortable truth from spreading? If censors clamp down on a growing rumor later than expected or not at all, is this because they’re simply slow or because government wants to build up public attention for its own purposes? In the days immediately after Bo’s removal from his Chongqing office, for example, Internet rumors about his misdeeds circulated freely, in what many suspect was a state effort to build public knowledge of his corruption and turn people against him. For Chinese netizens trying to parse out truth from rumors, every story and its government response are a new mystery, and the guessing game never really ends.
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