The government in Beijing has announced that disgraced politician Bo Xilai will stand trial in a few weeks. The announcement was long overdue: Mr. Bo was taken into custody nearly 18 months ago and China watchers have been watching closely to see how the proceeding against him would unfold.
The Bo trial is not just about a single politician and his misdeeds; it will show the world if the new Chinese leadership is serious about tackling corruption and abuses of power by the Communist Party.
According to Xinhua News Agency, the official indictment charges Mr. Bo with corruption, abuse of power and using his government positions to take “extremely huge” bribes.
Other news sources reported that Mr. Bo was accused of receiving more than 20 million yuan ($3.26 million) in bribes and embezzling another 5 million yuan.
The trial will be held in Jinan, in Shandong Province, although the reason for that is unclear: Jinan has no connection to Mr. Bo or his alleged crimes. The start date is not known either, although Chinese law requires that the defendant and lawyers be served with charges at least 10 days before a trial begins. If the past is any precedent, the verdict will be handed down within a month.
The scale of Mr. Bo’s alleged crimes is large (although the alleged bribery is only about a third as large as that of convicted former railways minister Liu Zhijun, who received a suspended death sentence earlier in July). Mr. Bo is an equally outsized defendant.
The son of former Vice Premier Bo Yibo, he is one of the “eight immortals,” the first generation of supreme leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. Mr. Bo had a distinguished career as a party official, serving as mayor of Dalian, governor of Liaoning province and commerce minister before moving on in 2007 to become head of the party in Chongqing, China’s largest city in terms of population, with nearly 30 million residents.
While the indictment only cites Mr. Bo’s alleged misbehavior during his time in Dalian and as minister of commerce, it is Mr. Bo’s tenure at Chongqing that is most problematic for the party.
He was arrested after his top aide, former police chief Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. consulate with evidence that Mr. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered a business associate, British businessman Neil Heywood. Wang feared that he had fallen out of favor with Mr. Bo and would end up as one of his victims. Wang was taken into protective custody by the Chinese security forces after the Americans refused him asylum, and that began a process that resulted in the ousting of Mr. Bo as party secretary, the arrest and conviction of Gu on charges of murder, and the sentencing of Wang to 15 years in prison for trying to cover up the killing.
The corruption of the Bo family is remarkable. Records reveal a family empire worth at least $136 million in company shares and property. But sordid as their dealings were — and most observers consider this China’s worst political scandal since the Gang of Four was prosecuted after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 — Mr. Bo’s real crime was not so much economic as political.
Mr. Bo’s true offense was challenging party orthodoxy and appealing to the public to win a seat on China’s supreme ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee. Appointments to the PSC as it is known are the result of a carefully orchestrated and painfully negotiated process among the country’s leading politicians, sitting and retired. It is designed to maintain a balance of power and make sure that the factions and fiefdoms within the party are represented in the top leadership and happy with the result. It occurs behind closed doors, far from public view.
Mr. Bo was not content to let the process work itself out. Instead, he embarked on a highly visible public relations campaign that capitalized on his success in Chongqing, where he masterminded a “strike black” crackdown against organized crime. His promotion of “red” culture harkened back to the socialist egalitarianism of the Maoist years. Those programs attracted national attention and became a model for other leaders throughout China.
It is not clear which offense was greater as far as the Communist Party was concerned: his support for the old economic model, which challenges the reform program adopted by the Beijing government, or the naked ambition with which he pursued membership on the PSC.
The Communist Party leadership has decided to make an example of Mr. Bo. The party knows it has a problem with corruption and public anger and disaffection will only mount as the economy slows.
As the party organ People’s Daily editorialized, “No matter who you are, whether you have a high or low position, you will be severely punished if you break the law. … Bo Xilai’s indictment again shows that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law … and nobody has special rights.”
But the party must walk a fine line. Mr. Bo’s trial must demonstrate the party’s commitment to the rule of law and reassure the public. At the same time, it must put other officials on notice, without alarming them so much that there is the danger of a split in the party. So, the death penalty for Mr. Bo is very unlikely.
Yet, going too easy on Mr. Bo would undermine public confidence in the government. It is a delicate balance, one that will be increasingly difficult to maintain in the future.