China’s show trial for reform?When Bo Xilai, the disgraced Chinese Communist leader, is tried this week in the eastern city of Jinan, what’s his best defense against allegations of embezzlement, bribery and abuse of power? On a practical level, he has none. The Chinese Communist Party is eager to restore its legitimacy with a public that views it - charitably - as hopelessly corrupt, and Bo’s predetermined conviction is a big part of accomplishing that task. He will be found guilty, and he will go to prison; the Communist Party and its mouthpieces will celebrate the decisiveness of the verdict as proof that the party - and the courts it controls - won’t tolerate corruption in its ranks.
But who will believe this? Certainly not a Chinese public that’s bombarded daily with news of arrests and convictions of officials at all levels of the party. Far from legitimizing the party and its rule, this lineup of corrupt officialdom undermines it with a Chinese public predisposed to believe in its institutional rot. Sadly, by the standard set by China’s daily newspapers, Bo’s crimes are extraordinary only insofar as they involve a very senior official.
The courts don’t escape this verdict, either. In the Chinese judicial system, prosecutors and police work closely with the courts - and everyone, especially judges, answers to the much-maligned Communist Party. Achieving justice means having the power, money and connections to lobby for it. Alas, for most Chinese, lacking in power, money and connections, this state of affairs leaves few alternatives beyond hopeless petitioning and - in increasing numbers - vengeance.
Bo knew this situation and how to use and abuse it, as well as any official in modern Chinese history. As party secretary of Chongqing from 2007 to 2012, Bo undertook a popular anti-corruption drive in which he overlooked legal niceties and used his considerable power over the judiciary and police to detain (and allegedly frame) thousands of criminals. Bo’s wife, meanwhile, used that same power to employ police in the cover-up of the murder of Neil Heywood, a British national. When, in early 2012, the Bo family’s crimes and corruption became public, their detention was depicted as a legal matter. But few doubted that the driving force behind the prosecution was a Chinese Politburo long wary of Bo Xilai’s charismatic authoritarianism.
Bo is not a sympathetic character. During his time in Chongqing he ruled ruthlessly and lived like a depraved Roman emperor.
Nonetheless, he can still serve as a poster boy for China’s judicial failings. Bo’s residual power - his father was Chinese Communist royalty - isn’t enough to change a leveling fact: His verdict and sentence will be decided by senior Communist Party officials according to political need, not by judges according to law. This predicament will resonate, for instance, with Chinese farmers robbed of their land by local government officials with connections to, if not control of, the courts and other means of appeal.
Recent weeks have brought tantalizing hints that at least a few Chinese view him that way. On Aug. 3, for example, the prominent leftist journalist Song Yangbiao posted to the Sina Weibo service that “All members of the Chinese Communist Party should rise up together to oppose the illegal trial in Jinan.” The post was later deleted, and Song was detained by police on Aug. 4. The China-based Human Rights Campaign for China posted on Aug. 8 a photo of a Beijing-based petitioner planning to protest outside Bo’s trial in Jinan. Behind her was a poster of Bo’s face, with a simple question: “If he can’t get justice, can you?”
Most Chinese would undoubtedly answer “no” to that question - one probable reason that the Chinese leadership has in recent weeks made judicial reform one of its signature public campaigns. The reform initiative had been in the works but seems to have gained urgency as judicial scandals and unpopular decisions (often the same thing) increased public outrage at the courts and perceptions of Communist Party lawlessness.
Bo may not be aware of the recent reform initiative, but he’s certainly aware of how China’s flawed court system exacerbates social tensions. Yet, even if he mounted a defense based on the reasonable suggestion that he’s being subjected to an unfair trial, the censors would never allow the Chinese public to hear it. A political trial disguised as a judicial proceeding isn’t an open forum to air grievances against the ruling party. Bo, as much as anyone in China, understands that.
His defense, insofar as he can mount one, should be political, negotiated behind closed doors with hope that his public - whoever that might be at this point - sees in him a symbol of a failure much greater than his own corruption. Leniency, much less mercy, is unlikely. But if Bo’s trial leads to greater public pressure for reform of China’s unjust judiciary, history might just grant him a bit of accidental redemption.
*The author is the Shanghai correspondent for the Bloomberg’s World View blog.
By Adam Minter