The show trial of fallen Chinese political star Bo Xilai holds all the fascination of the titillating spectacle of charismatic and powerful politician crushed by revelations of a killing and coverup.
The trial of Mr. Bo – a former senior Communist Party member, Politburo member, minister of commerce and party secretary of the city of Chongqing – began Thursday and will conclude Friday.
The official reason for the trial is allegations that he received bribes, embezzled state funds and was complicit in covering up the 2011 murder of Neil Heywood, a British national who evidently helped Mr. Bo and his family transfer large sums of illicit money offshore.
But in a larger frame, the trial has exposed some harsh realities of the Chinese regime, a rising economic and geopolitical force with which Canada is unavoidably and necessarily more and more engaged.
One might have hoped that Mr. Bo’s arrest signalled a positive move by the new leadership of Party General Secretary Xi Jinping to address pervasive issues of bribery, cronyism and law-flouting that have created a new ruling class of Communist Party business and government elites, much at odds with the aspirations of China’s increasingly alienated citizenry.
But it is not to be. A New York Times investigation identified assets exceeding $160-million associated with Mr. Bo and his family, and presumably the corrupt personal gains derived over the course of a career exceeded this sum. But Mr. Bo is being charged only with taking bribes equivalent to $3.3-million and embezzling $820,000 early in his career, when he was posted to the eastern city of Dalian. Keeping the figures low and the allegations a good 10 years in the past prevents the implication of other officials.
The abuse of power simply refers to Mr. Bo’s firing of his police chief Wang Lijun, who had expressed qualms about the alleged murder coverup. Mr. Bo had failed to obtain permission from the Ministry of Public Security and the Organization Department of the Party Central Committee to remove Mr. Wang from his post – a violation of party discipline, but not much else.
Interestingly, much more serious allegations – that Mr. Bo used torture, coercion and long labour camp sentences to squeeze assets out of criminals and businessmen – were left unaddressed. But then, in China’s Communist business culture, it is hard to distinguish the respected captain of industry from the mafia don.
Thursday, foreign reporters were barred from the courtroom and Mr. Bo’s own defence lawyer was not allowed to participate. Moreover, the judge began by announcing that there had already been a “pretrial” on July 14. So this week’s court proceedings have already been thoroughly vetted, scripted and rehearsed in advance. Nevertheless, according to the limited information released by the court over the course of the first day, Mr. Bo has mounted a feisty defence, claiming that his previous confession of bribe-taking had been forced under torture by interrogators. Mr. Bo even reportedly ridiculed one witness’s testimony against him as “the ugly performance of a person selling his soul.”
But despite full awareness in China that Mr. Bo, like most senior officials, has accumulated a massive fortune through various forms of kickbacks, he remains very popular among a significant part of the Chinese underclass. While boss of Chongqing, he enacted a number of populist measures in the city of nearly 30 million, including a very visible crackdown on organized crime, providing subsidized housing accessible to ordinary citizens, and extending social welfare measures to migrant workers. People see him as a supporter of the solidarity with workers and farmers that informed the Communist Party’s rise to power in 1949.
This is in strong contrast to Mr. Bo’s fellow senior leaders, former premier Wen Jiabao and former president Hu Jintao. They periodically made vague promises of respect for democracy, human rights and comprehensive rule of law at some undefined time in the future, when the developmental conditions are “right.” But, clearly, that day is not coming any time soon. Instead, the income gap between the party elite and the lower classes gets wider year by year, with no sign of abating. Mr. Bo gave people hope of a developmental model offering more substantive benefits and justice for the rest.
Many people in China feel the trial is just a frame-up for his factional purging, but it is not inconceivable that Mr. Bo could still mount a return to power from prison. Indeed, the court indictment citing complicity with wrongdoing by his son, Guagua – who has, since the age of 12, been educated in Britain and the United States, and is now about to enter Columbia University’s prestigious law school – suggests that Mr. Bo’s fellow princelings feel threatened by the broad popular support he enjoys.
It is ironic that, just as Mr. Bo heads to a long prison sentence, one of those fellow princelings, President Xi Jinping, is adopting much of Mr. Bo’s modern Maoist rhetoric.
Mr. Xi has enthusiastically declared that China will remain “Red forever.” and recently, at his behest, Chinese propaganda officials issued new restrictions banning all discussion in newspapers and academic meetings of seven topics deemed to be “dangerous Western influences.” These are: 1. the idea that there are “universal values,” such as entitlement to human rights; 2. freedom of speech; 3. democracy and civil society; 4. civil rights and free elections; 5. independence of the judiciary; 6. crony capitalism; and 7. historical errors of the Chinese Communist Party.
In this context, the hypocrisy of what state media describe as the “fair and open trial of Bo Xilai” is likely just the beginning of a new era of arbitrary rule by a political party that has lost its ideological direction and its commitment to social justice.
None of this bodes well for the smooth development of enhanced Canada-China relations.
Among Chinese themselves, many are merely hoping for better days ahead, and that their leaders will bring politics into a brighter, more just and more stable future. Unbanning discussion of those seven political topics would be a good way to start.
Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, and is a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.