BEIJING – The just-concluded trial of Bo Xilai will be remembered as one of the most critical political milestones in contemporary Chinese Communist history. For many years after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, show trials were straightforward affairs. For their role in the devastating Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four were simply charged with “anti-party activities” and convicted. Today, a political trial needs to take into consideration many more factors.
As China assumes a more central role in international affairs and touts its rapid economic growth over the past 30 years, its leaders seek to establish a reputation for governing society according to the rule of law. Tested by Bo’s trial, the new leadership has struggled to maintain that fiction, and to appear open and confident before its people. Ultimately, those efforts have failed.
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. All involved are members of the social and political elite, starting with former Politburo member Bo; his wife, Gu Kailai; the police chief of Chongqing, with whom she may have been having an affair; a murdered British business partner; top Chinese and foreign businessmen; even Bo’s son, a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School.
To project strength and show that the party stood above petty politics, authorities decided to release a “live” — but censored — transcript of the proceedings. This record did provide exciting entertainment; no preordained script could have come up with such a deliciously twisted drama.
Yet by presenting a censored account, officials raised more questions than they answered. The public knew they weren’t seeing the whole picture, and could only speculate on what major pieces of the story remained hidden. Even their reactions were censored: Within a day, the Jinan court received more than 4,000 comments on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, but only 22 were allowed to be shown.
Censorship remains the regime’s default response to any outpouring of public opinion. In an instance like this where transparency is required, China’s leaders are unable to truly embrace openness, or to perform in any way that would earn understanding and sympathy from the public at large. Instead, authorities sought to contain the trial’s narrative within bounds that wouldn’t shake the party’s foundations.
Perhaps the regime thought it could avoid uncomfortable questions by focusing on the criminal allegations against Bo, as if this were a normal trial being held according to the rule of law. This was a farce, however, one that no ordinary Chinese believed.
In straining to maintain the fiction, prosecutors made obvious procedural mistakes, used unfairly obtained evidence and brought forward witnesses who were clearly testifying under coercion. Conducted in this self-defeating manner, both the intent of the trial and the eventual result came off as ridiculous. Chinese will never be convinced that Bo received a fair hearing, because they knew the full truth wasn’t being exposed.
Bo may indeed be guilty of corruption and abuse of power, as the court is sure to find him. But justice can never be achieved partially. There is either justice, or there is none. Even the simplest of games requires a clear set of rules. Otherwise the game can only be seen as “insanity,” as Bo described his wife’s video testimony.
If the regime didn’t manage to convey its intended message with Bo’s trial, what message was received? Cadres were supposed to learn that bribe-taking wouldn’t be tolerated, no matter how illustrious the official. Rather than encouraging party members to be honest or hardworking, though, the trial has taught them above all to do whatever it takes to stay on the right side of the current leadership. The constitution and the law, even basic moral judgments, hardly figure in their calculations.
The result is that no Chinese leader, from the village level to the Politburo, enjoys any sense of security. With its arbitrary rule, the party nurtures an official mentality that undermines constructive decision making and the possibility of change. It is a sad position in China to be a politician.
Chinese citizens aren’t much better off. Bo comes from a deep-rooted, revolutionary Communist family and was a political superstar before his arrest — one of the most active and high profile members of the pro-Mao, “Red Second Generation.” He represents every bit of the leadership’s thinking today; his style, experience, energy, passion and political stance pretty much define the core values of the “Chinese Dream.” If even he could be brought low so thoroughly, what chance does an ordinary citizen have? Nobody can be safe when values such as human rights, freedom of speech and judicial fairness are sacrificed to serve the interests of political elites.
That knowledge helps explain why my own arrest in 2011 garnered the attention that it did. I was detained and interrogated for subversion of state power, but when I was released, the authorities didn’t charge me with any criminal conduct. Rather, they accused the company where I work of economic crimes. Because officials never intended to investigate the company for such crimes, they made several mistakes and built an entirely meritless case.
They didn’t anticipate the attention that the case would receive when I made it public. Too many people recognized that they, too, were vulnerable to the same capricious behavior by the authorities. (Nor did the regime expect that I would sue them.) In the end, they decided not to pursue the case and quietly gave up the whole farce.
Chinese are more sophisticated these days, and they have less confidence in the state than ever before. Rather than recognizing and addressing that fact, the regime refuses to engage with its people. In the recently leaked “Document No. 9,” senior leaders of the Communist Party listed “seven perils,” clearly stating that “Western constitutional democracy” and “universal values” were dangers to society.
Because the Chinese government refuses to face elections, the public has never had a chance to express its opinion about the leadership. The grounds to have any form of communication, discussion or argument — absolute requirements for building the social infrastructure for a modern society — have never been established. The Communist Party is ethically and philosophically too weak to meet any challenge in public discussion.
Chinese society is being warped by this weakness. It’s interesting how Chinese quickly turned the three-finger salute Bo seemed to be giving in one courtroom picture into an emoticon. Societies in which you can’t clearly spell out the truth become rich with symbols, suggestions and parallels. This only happens under the rule of a tyrant, and Chinese language and culture have always been so.
Chinese appreciate the twisted forms of artificial rocks and bonsai, recognizing in them a metaphor for Chinese politics. When harsh living conditions eliminate space for natural growth, crooked shapes are formed in a struggle to survive.
Over the coming years, perhaps the Communist government will finally face real questions about its legitimacy, and realize that it can only continue to govern if supported by the constitution and true rule of law. Otherwise, if it continues to reject any public role in its decision making and hopes to distract Chinese with spectacles like the Bo case, the regime will only hasten its own end. Bo’s drama may soon end, but the regime is still on trial.
Ai Weiwei is a Beijing-based artist and sociocultural critic. Follow him at @aiww.