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Facing justice

Gabriel DominguezAugust 20, 2013

He was once one of China's most powerful leaders. Now, Bo Xilai, former party chief of Chongqing, is to stand trial for corruption and abuse of power. Legal expert Rebecca Liao examines the political impact of his case.

China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai looks on during a meeting at the annual session of China's parliament, the National People's Congress, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 6, 2010.(Photo: Reuters)
Image: Reuters

According to media reports, the trial of the disgraced senior Chinese politician Bo Xilai will start on Thursday, August 22 in the Intermediate People's Court of the eastern city of Jinan. The former party secretary of China's largest city Chongqing fell from power last year in one of China's messiest scandal in decades. It exposed the murder of a British businessman by his wife, Gu Kailai, and a thwarted defection bid by his former police chief, Wang Lijun. In a DW interview, legal expert Rebecca Liao said that Bo's fate is politically driven and that he will almost certainly be found guilty.

DW: What message is the Chinese government sending out by putting Bo Xilai on trial?

Rebecca Liao: When Bo was first dismissed from his post as party secretary of Chongqing last March, the party wished to let it be known that no one is above party culture. Bo's very public campaign to climb to the upper echelons of political power in China was unacceptable in a party that emphasizes maintaining a low profile and keeping any internal struggles away from the limelight. In the run-up to his trial, however, the party is saying nobody is above the law.

Rebecca Liao, corporate attorney and writer based in Silicon Valley. Copyright: privat
Liao says Bo Xilai will almost certainly be found guiltyImage: privat

Its focus on fighting corruption is certainly a part of that, but it is also a chance to demonstrate that China understands the importance of legal procedure, even in a case as inescapably political as this one. The challenge before the party is to demonstrate that even in a show trial, there is still reason to believe China can realize its ambitions to implement the rule of law.

What fate awaits the former top politician?

Bo Xilai will almost certainly be found guilty on each of the charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. However, he probably faces a lenient sentence. Officials have not put forth specific allegations, but Caijing, a respected magazine in China, reports that sources close to the matter say Bo has been accused of receiving more than 20 million yuan in bribes and embezzling another five million yuan while mayor of the northeastern city of Dalian. And according to a lawyer close to the Bo family, the charge of abuse of power stems from his dismissing Wang Lijun, his former right hand man and police chief of Chongqing, without the approval of the Ministry of Public Security.

If true, the allegations are far less severe than they could be, glossing over Bo's disregard for the rule of law in Chongqing in his anti-crime campaigns and the hundreds of millions sources say Bo ferried into offshore accounts. For comparison, his wife Gu Kailai received a suspended death sentence for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood. Liu Zhijun, former head of the endemically corrupt Ministry of Railways, was handed the same fate for accepting 64.6 million yuan in bribes. Bo will share like punishment, possibly even less.

Could the Bo Xilai case set a precedent for other corruption cases involving top Chinese politicians and members of China's Communist Party?

The Bo Xilai case presented a very special and unique situation for the Communist Party. He is a so-called princeling whose father was in Mao Zedong's inner circle. He has powerful grassroots support for his policies and leadership style, which the party has tried to silence since his dismissal last March. Before his fall from grace, he was talked about as a serious threat to the political authority of current President Xi Jinping.

Even out of power, he is a divisive figure in the party. Bringing Bo Xilai to justice involved painstaking maneuvering between different factions on a scale that no other officials have faced in recent memory. His case may serve as precedent should an official in a similar situation emerge, but that is highly unlikely.

What other reasons besides the fight against corruption could lay behind Bo Xilai's fall from power?

It was and still is the case that Bo Xilai's fate is politically driven. He made it apparent early on in his political career that he would aim for high office one day, perhaps even the presidency. His assignment to Chongqing in 2007 after having served as Minister of Commerce was a signal from the party that he would likely be unsuccessful. Instead of accepting the decision, in line with the party's culture of strict loyalty to the organization, he undertook bold initiatives in Chongqing and aggressively publicized them.

He appealed directly for popular support, talking to the media in the manner of a Western politician. Combined with his ruthless disregard for the rule of law in implementing his ambitious initiative and his wiretapping of China's top officials, it was all too threatening to the party's elite. Even his allies had to admit as much. Fighting corruption is the Party's current focus, and it's convenient that Bo's story fits into that narrative, but his trial had very different motivations.

How much has the case been driven by public pressure and the expectation of the Chinese people that their government clamps down on corruption?

If anything, public pressure in this case has driven the government to treat Bo with a lighter hand. His dismissal as party secretary of Chongqing was already a welcome shock to his detractors, whose greatest fear was that he would only grow more powerful on the national stage, not that he would escape full justice for his crimes. Bo's supporters have by far been more vocal in their criticism of the party's singling out of Bo. Knowing the strength of Bo's allies at the grassroots and elite levels, the party has made every effort to shy away from an overtly punitive outcome.

How big of a problem has corruption become in China?

It's hard to overstate. The common perception in China is that no official is clean, and the party recognizes that it will not survive if it continues to allow this challenge to its legitimacy to fester. But how exactly does the party sanitize its ranks and bring corrupt officials to justice if one, almost everyone is implicated, and two, the party's bottom line is that it cannot tolerate checks to its power?

A combination of two photographs shows British businessman Neil Heywood (L) at an Aston Martin dealership in Beijing, May 26, 2010, and Gu Kailai, wife of China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai (Photo: Reuters)
Gu Kailai (R) received last year a suspended death sentence for the murder of Neil Heywood (L)Image: Reuters

The party elite has been rolling out ideological campaigns and publicizing increased investigations and prosecutions of officials in an effort to show the sincerity of its efforts. All of that is a good start, but there will need to be systemic reforms. The extent of what Wang Qishan, China's anti-corruption czar, can promise is that the party will focus on controlling the symptoms of corruption in the short term and turn to the causes later.

Rebecca Liao is a corporate attorney and writer based in Silicon Valley, focusing on Chinese politics and culture.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez