Fallen Chinese Leader Brought to Trial

The long awaited trial of Bo Xilai has concluded, being remarkable for the attempts by the Chinese government to make it appear more transparent than usual, with official updates on social media in stark contrast to the scant exposure given to the trials of most fallen officials. Even transcripts of the trial have been posted online through the social media account of the court. The trial of Bo is far from ordinary. Even before his fall from power last year, Bo achieved a disproportionate level of attention for a leader in his position. His tenure as Party Secretary of Chongqing won him both accolades and derision, making him one of the most polarising and controversial political leaders in China. Bo faced charges of taking bribes, embezzlement and abuse of power.

The trial has taken some time to actually occur. From his fall from power and subsequent detention in March 2012, very little was heard apart from an announcement in July that year indicating that he had been formally charged. During this time the two others closely associated with Bo, his wife Gu Kailai and former police chief Wang Lijun, had been brought to trial and found guilty of the charges leveled against them. Gu was detained in April 2012, charged in July and brought to trial in August later that year. Wang was detained in February 2012 soon after his infamous visit to the US consulate in Chengdu that precipitated the removal of Bo. Wang faced trial in September that year. The comparative delay in bringing Bo to trial is likely due to the complexity of the case, with the authorities being careful to compile an irrefutable case. It was also important to conclude the trials of Gu and Wang beforehand. If his behavior during the trial is anything to go by, Bo probably refused to cooperate with the investigation. This would have also prolonged the time to trial.

It is Bo’s behavior during the trial and the manner in which the Chinese media has dealt with it that has been one of the most interesting aspects of the entire affair. Typically, an official on trial will confess to all charges, appearing contrite. The media reports it as such. In contrast, Bo vocally challenged key pieces of evidence and questioned the credibility of witnesses. Among the key witnesses were Gu and Wang. Both testified against Bo. His responses were colourful, describing Gu as insane and a compulsive liar. He confronted Wang, accusing him of being in love with Gu. Bo referred to other evidence as “irrelevant.” Challenging, even dismissing evidence as irrelevant and refusing to confess prolonged the trial. Both Gu and Wang confessed to the charges. Their trials lasted no longer than a day. Bo’s trial lasted an extraordinary five days.

Despite the length and unusual attention given to the trial Bo will likely be found guilty. The vast majority of criminal cases in China end in a conviction for the accused. Bo’s uncooperative obfuscation during the trial will likely come at a heavy price to him personally. Both Wang and Gu likely received comparatively lenient sentences in return for their confessions and contrition. They also had evidence against Bo they could trade for lighter sentences. Bo was in a more difficult position; being the ultimate target he could only give evidence against himself as a bargaining chip. Confessing to the charges was perhaps the only move he could make to lighten the potential sentence. Given that he was essentially at the mercy of the Party during the investigation, attempts to blackmail other senior leaders with evidence of wrongdoing would have largely made no difference. He did make a confession during his detention but stated at trial he did so “because I still had a burning hope in my heart to remain in the party and extend my political life.” He did show some startling contrition towards the end, apologising for damaging the image of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), for being self-centred and bad tempered. Yet he did not plead guilty. That is what counted when the prosecutors made their recommendation to the judicial panel. Calling his denials “whimsical”, the prosecutors have called for Bo to punished to the fullest extent possible without leniency.

Despite some suggestions that his behaviour has been staged, the dramatic nature of Bo’s responses to the evidence suggest authenticity. The best outcome for the authorities would be for Bo to show contrition and confess; any other scenario is too complex to be true. If Bo’s outbursts and challenges have been authentic, then the authorities have demonstrated real flexibility and confidence not only in accommodating him and extending the trial but also in allowing limited public scrutiny of the process.

The trial was never going to be a conventional prosecution of corruption but an inherently political exercise. The nature of Bo’s former status guarantees that his prosecution is political. A conviction and sentence will complete his fall. It is useless to discuss potential sentences for Bo at this stage. There will be careful considerations about the public acceptability of certain punishments weighed in the background. However, it is certain that Bo Xilai will spend some years in prison.