The court trial of the ambitious, charismatic and neo-Maoist ex-Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, whose style and popularity rattled China’s power elites, has raised fresh questions about the direction of China under its new leadership.
The five days of testimony in the trial in Jinan focused tightly on charges of corruption against Bo, causing a sensation for the public when the details were shared on China’s social media. The state accused Bo of skimming a small fortune in personal wealth from public funds, as well as interfering in the probe of wife Gu Kailai’s murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. The fallout of these actions caused Bo’s ex-police chief Wang Lijun to flee to the U.S. consulate — the move that set off the scandal — in February 2012. What the trial, replete with sensational details of the cover-up efforts, did not address, however, were Bo’s legally questionable actions during his crackdown on crime when he was in charge in Chongqing.
As artist and critic Ai Wei Wei wrote: “Bo’s case must have felt to party leaders like a tumor growing near a carotid artery — too dangerous to treat, yet too aggressive to be left alone.” Bo belonged to an elite, like his Party enemies. But his popularity was a challenge for a Party that craves stability and legitimacy. Thus, the need to discredit the once-rising political star as thoroughly as this in the public’s eye.
By establishing the limits of the trial before the courtroom drama began — including presumably the verdict and sentencing — the government effectively ring-fenced Bo’s crimes from any larger questions about the way power works in the Communist Party. Given the unpredictable nature of social media, the government, aware of both Bo’s populist appeal and the impact of social networks on regimes elsewhere in Asia, may have calculated it was better to manage the topics picked up online, even if it couldn’t control the conclusions of citizens.
At one point, differing transcripts of testimony found their way to the public, giving a glimpse of the kind of message management employed by the China’s leaders. From the Party’s perspective, the greatest fear is that dissent crystallizes into a sort of rival movement, candidate, force — especially in the case of Bo. Naturally, there was a lock-down of Bo’s most likely supporters in the run-up to the trial.
But the bigger question arising from the Bo trial is whether this stage-managed pseudotransparency will become the new normal for future political court cases in China. There is a recognition that a wealthier, more-globally informed Chinese citizen is demanding more accountability. The Chinese people also have less patience for the kind of gross corruption and patronage baked-in to their current political system.
And some do see even the half-embrace of more transparency in the Bo case and greater public knowledge of the trial as lifting the bar for future trials and civil society, a small step toward real reform.
Yet only days before the trial, a document linked to China’s leadership emerged detailing the Communist Party’s continued hostility to efforts to enshrine civic rights. The memo warned against media independence, civic participation and the promotion of the “universal values” of human rights — the same conditions that are conducive to free and fair trials. This was, it should be noted, precisely the sort of neo-Maoism favored by Bo himself before his downfall.
Like many aspects of China’s politics, the implications of the Bo trial are Janus-faced, pointing, simultaneously, to two contradictory outcomes. After the Bo case, expectations of more transparency may grow, raising the standards for such legal proceedings and tilting China in the direction of the rule of law. The other possibility is that the Party, taking a pragmatic view of the effect of social media in other quasi-authoritarian states, has embraced it in order to better co-opt it. In this scenario, what seems a legitimate trial becomes — like so many other interactions between the Chinese state and its citizens — a Potemkin version of itself, this time with the gloss of social media added to bring it up to date.