Bo Xilai’s fall from power was both dramatic and swift. The charismatic former Party secretary of Chongqing, once thought a candidate for a top government position, was dismissed in March 2012, accused of widespread corruption and abuse of power. At the same time his estranged wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested for the murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood. In the following months the curtain of secrecy that usually conceals China’s political elite was yanked aside, as tales of Bo’s wealth and his family’s extravagant lifestyle spread.
His trial began on 22 August. Most high profile trials in China are tightly controlled pieces of theatre, in which the verdict is predetermined and the accused plays the part of a repentant villain. But Bo seemed to be following a different script. He said his earlier confession had been coerced, and described Tang Xiaolin, a businessmen who claimed to have bribed him, as a ‘mad dog’. After a devastating cross-examination of another witness, Bo echoed a Maoist slogan by thanking him for ‘seeking truth from facts’. As for his wife’s testimony against him, Bo said she was a convicted murderer with a history of mental illness, as well as ‘a person of culture and taste, a woman of modern thinking’.
Bo’s performance elicited admiration on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, but few thought it would alter the trial’s outcome. ‘No matter how Bo performs,’ the People’s Daily said, ‘how he lies, it is all only a display of strength to hide the weakness inside.’
There was also disagreement about the extent to which Bo’s actions were officially sanctioned, with some arguing that even his apparent defiance had been approved in order to make the trial seem fair: it may or may not be significant that he didn’t at any point attack his political superiors.
Of course even to call it a ‘trial’ is a misnomer – whether or not Bo committed any crimes is no more certain than before. If any ‘truth’ has emerged from the proceedings, it has been in the portrait of a family whose lives have been distorted by power and influence, legally acquired or not. In addition to fresh tales of excess — such as Bo’s son going on a jaunt with his friends to Mount Kilimanjaro and bringing back ‘a piece of meat from a very exotic animal’ which the family then argued about how to cook — it emerged that Bo hit his deputy Wang Lijun in the face after finding out he’d been having an affair with his wife.
The verdict has yet to be announced, but there’s no doubt Bo will be found guilty. A death sentence is theoretically possible, but a long prison term more likely. A more open question is what lessons the Chinese public will take from this show trial. The intended message is presumably that no one is above the law, and that corruption is the exception rather than the rule. But there have been too many scandals involving high profile officials in China over the last few years for any real doubt to remain about how pervasive corruption is. As a recent editorial in Caixin argued, the case ‘is proof that a mechanism must be set up to limit the power of officials, prevent their relatives from using their offices for private gain, and require officials to make their assets and finances public’. But this would require transparency throughout the political system – the lack of which is precisely what the rule of the Party has been based on.
As for Bo Xilai, though his political career is probably over — despite the frequency of second and even third acts in Chinese politics — his conduct during the trial may have been enough to restore his reputation in some people’s minds. As one of my Chinese friends put it, ‘he was corrupt like many other leaders but unlike them he also did things for the people.’