Bo’s Arrest was About Politics—But His Verdict May Have Been About Corruption

Fallen Chinese leader Bo Xilai was sentenced to life in prison on Sunday, September 22 on charges of corruption, abuse of power and bribery (Jinan Intermediate People’s Court, September 22). The verdict represents an end to the most politically explosive episode in China’s recent history, and assiduously avoids mentioning the case’s dramatic political aspects. According to China’s official media, the verdict—stiffer than the 20-year sentences given in the previous Politburo-level corruption cases against Chen Liangyu and Chen Xitong—represented both a victory in the fight against corruption and proof that even a high official is not above the law. As a headline in the official People’s Court Daily put it, “The publication of the Bo Xilai verdict is the best possible legal education” (September 23).

This “vivid demonstration of how the rule of law should be implemented” was a tightly-managed show trial (quote from Xinhua Insight, September 22). Even the guards who escorted Bo into the courtroom were hand-picked to tower over his 6-foot, 1-inch frame. But show trials have morals, and it seems that the new leadership used this one to make a point about corruption and legal procedure.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Bo case is that it has spanned the terms of two leadership groups. This is a contrast to the two Chen cases, both of which took place as shortly after previous presidents took office, while they were still in the process of consolidating authority. Bo, by contrast, was arrested as Hu Jintao was on his way out, and his arrest has been widely interpreted as a last-minute Hu-initiated effort to take down a political rival. However, his trial, and the unusually harsh verdict, took place under the leadership of Xi Jinping. Nor is the case necessarily finished­—during the last few weeks there have been a number of arrests of officials connected to Hu-era security chief and Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, although the most recent (entirely foreign and anonymously sourced) reporting suggests that he is not yet a target of the investigation (Reuters, September 4).

There are three plausible ways to interpret this issue, all with interesting implications. First, it could be that the investigation was Xi’s project from the beginning, which would be consistent with Hu’s track record on the Chen Liangyu takedown—he appears to have spent years planning it before taking office, and avoided visiting Chen’s home ground of Shanghai. However, it is hard to believe that he could have made use of the party discipline apparatus in this way without Hu’s approval, especially while maneuvering against a protégé of Zhou Yongkang, the head of the police and legal apparatus.

Second, it might be a joint project of the Hu and Xi regimes, which is very plausible—for different reasons, both were threatened by Bo’s effort to go around the normal mechanisms of career advancement by seeking popular support. This would be consistent with the continuing investigations. Such an interpretation would challenge the widespread narrative of factional competition between Xi and Hu, but in ways that are consistent with other evidence. Xi’s premier, Li Keqiang, is close to Hu’s Wen Jiabao in both patronage ties and ideas, but he has formed an effective team with the president and appears to have widespread backing from the largely Xi- and Jiang Zemin-allied leadership to pursue a reform agenda that draws heavily from Wen’s pet issues of the last few years, including economic rebalancing (for more on this, see “Li Keqiang: New Type Urbanist” in this issue of China Brief). The necessary conclusion may be that, although the Party contains many, very different ideas about China’s future—with Bo at the conservative extreme—they do not map to the patronage networks of former leaders we call factions.

The last explanation to consider is that the new leadership may have simply taken the Bo case and repurposed it—having pledged to pursue corruption among “both tigers and flies,” it would be a shame to let a captive tiger go to waste. With more convictions this month in the high-profile Ministry of Railways corruption case, and a series of major arrests in the National Chinese Petroleum Company, the leadership appears to be seizing the chance to send a strong signal about corruption. Although it is utterly implausible that corruption was the main reason for Bo’s arrest—if it were, every member of the Politburo would have left for Switzerland already—Xi and Li seem to have taken it as an opportunity to send a message, highlighting the issue with a stiff sentence.

From Extra-Legal Punishment to “Rule by Law”

Of course, the official line has also been keen to argue that the Bo case was not a show trial, but was done entirely in accordance with the rule of law. As a headline in the Ministry of Justice’s Legal Daily put it, the Bo Xilai verdict “was based on facts, with the law as the only criterion” (September 23). The article goes through the procedure of the trial, stressing that Bo was provided with an attorney, allowed to cross-examine witnesses and to disavow a confession he claimed he had given under duress. While literally true, these articles paper over significant gaps in Bo’s legal rights—he was originally detained not by police, but under the extralegal authority of the Party discipline committee; his lawyer was chosen for him; and, of course, he was tried by a court, like all courts in China, answerable to the Party’s political-legal apparatus.

However, this rhetoric belongs to a recent campaign supporting the “rule of law,” pointed out by Willy Lam in the last issue of China Brief (Vol. 13, Issue 18). This is yet another issue associated with Wen Jiabao that the new leadership has taken up. As Lam argued, there is absolutely no sign that the Party is interested in moving toward an independent judiciary or other meaningful legal reform, but the Bo case suggests that the push have a political purpose: moving from wholly extralegal discipline to “rule by law”­—that is, using laws and courts as a central tool for social control.

In the Bo case, both in official coverage and in the courtroom, there was a great effort to create the appearance of legal norms. In this sense, it fits with a recent trend toward replacing extralegal discipline of troublesome people with broad laws that allow the same punishments to be meted out through the courts. The government has promised to reform the system of reeducation through labor, which allows police to imprison people for years without charges, and is widely used to disappear critics of the government­. There has also been at least one arrest of officials involved in the system of illegal jails used to hold petitioners trying to file complaints with the central government (Xinhua, January 7; Al Jazeera, February 5). But at the same time, the government has been creating regulations against “spreading rumors,” which under a September 9 ruling from the Supreme People’s Court will allow people to be imprisoned for three years for sharing “false information that is defamatory or harms the national interest” if it is viewed 5,000 times or reposted 500 times (Xinhua, September 10).

In terms of individual rights, it may be six of one kind of abuse against half a dozen of another. But this path has some political reasons to recommend it: First, it may increase the legitimacy of the system. Second, in terms of central control, a shift toward managing dissent through the legal system may create an opportunity for more central oversight. The current system is widely used by local officials to protect themselves and local cronies from exposure for wrongdoing and failures (for an extravagant case in which local officials were very clearly undertaking a cover-up without orders, see “One Chinese City’s PR Nightmare,” in The Diplomat Magazine, September 30, 2011). The leadership may see this as an abuse, even within authoritarian norms, of a system intended to protect the Party as a whole from threats to its rule—and a way for local officials to conceal their failures from their superiors. Courts produce records, which, even if sealed to the public, are available to the Party. If local officials are forced to hold trials of “rumor-mongers,” rather than simply sending them to labor camps, it may help the center understand who is being disappeared and why—and to crack down on the kinds of local disobedience that Xi has spent the last six months attacking.