CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – As show trials go, the drama featuring Bo Xilai, the once-swaggering, media-savvy former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief of Chongqing, veered anomalously into improvisation. Before the proceedings began, the conventional wisdom was that Bo’s trial had been carefully scripted and rehearsed to portray a forlorn and penitent sinner confessing his crimes and apologizing to the Party.
But the historic five-day trial dispelled any notion that Bo would go quietly to his cell in Beijing’s infamous Qincheng Prison, where China’s fallen top leaders are incarcerated. He challenged the prosecution vigorously, defending himself with a feistiness that surprised nearly all who read the transcripts released by the court in real time on the trial’s first day.
Bo dismissed one of his accusers as having “sold his soul.” He characterized testimony given by his wife, Gu Kailai, now serving a suspended death sentence for murdering the British businessman Neil Heywood in 2011, as “comical” and “fictional,” and he called her “crazy.”
Throughout the trial, Bo flatly denied most of the corruption charges, often professed ignorance of the facts, and claimed to be unable to recall any details of the matters in question. He even retracted his confession to the CCP’s anti-graft agency, blaming mental stress for his admission that he accepted bribes from a man he called “soulless” in court. In his closing statement, he dropped a bombshell: he claimed that Wang Lijun, his former police chief and henchman (and a “vile character”), was secretly in love with his wife.
The trial transcripts create an impression of a man who, had he not gone into politics, would have excelled as a trial lawyer. Bo made the prosecution look sloppy and incompetent.
However, anyone who believes that the courtroom drama in the provincial capital of Jinan will determine the trial’s outcome (the verdict and sentence will be announced in September) is seriously mistaken. The CCP’s leaders have already decided that Bo is guilty and must spend years in jail (the scale of Bo’s alleged bribe-taking ensures a sentence of 15-20 years).
A logical question to ask, then, is why the party allowed an unprecedented degree of openness at the trial. The two most recently purged Politburo members were tried in secret, as were Bo’s wife, and his former police chief.
The optimistic view is that China’s new leadership wants to demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law and fairness. But that is a naive interpretation. While the trial proceedings on the first day were refreshingly open by Chinese standards, that quickly changed. Transcripts were not released in real time on subsequent days, and they omitted some crucial details (for example, Bo claimed that the party’s representatives threatened to execute his wife and prosecute his son if he refused to cooperate). Perhaps worried that Bo’s defiant behavior was winning the PR battle, the official media also launched a media blitz savaging Bo’s character and all but pronouncing him guilty.
Even more disturbing, on the second day of the trial, the Chinese police formally arrested Xu Zhiyong, a human-rights lawyer who was leading a campaign to force mandatory disclosure of the wealth of senior officials and their family members. The Chinese government has also begun a ferocious crackdown on social media, arresting prominent activists on dubious charges.
So there must be a different — and more political — interpretation of the Chinese government’s handling of Bo’s trial. It is worth recalling that purging him was a deeply divisive affair at the CCP’s highest levels. His patrons and allies could not save him, but they were well positioned to demand that his trial be conducted as openly as possible. Given Bo’s gift for dazzling an audience, his allies must have felt confident that a spirited defense would serve him well, both legally and politically.
Bo certainly did not disappoint. He could have groveled his way through the trial, like other senior party officials brought down by corruption scandals, and as most defendants have done in the long grim history of communist show trials beginning with Stalin. But Bo apparently is not accepting his political demise as a final act — in his closing statement, he told the court that he wanted to keep his party membership (he was expelled anyway) — and a comeback calculus may well have motivated his spirited performance. Bo understands that he should not be perceived as a pitiful loser who gutlessly besmirches his honor.
By appearing dignified, defiant, and forceful, Bo evidently sought to preserve his image among his allies and supporters as a strong leader. Denouncing himself in order to gain leniency — in a case that he portrayed as a grievous miscarriage of justice — would have made him look like a coward.
Bo may be heading to jail, but he retains some chance of political rehabilitation should things change dramatically in China. His botched — but riveting — trial may be over, but the Bo Xilai show will go on.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. © Project Syndicate, 2013.