China’s trial of the century... but the fate of Bo Xilai is likely to have already been decided

Clifford Coonan reports from Beijing on the eve of the court case of former Communist Party chief

Beijing

He was once a rising star of China’s Communist Party, celebrated for his advocacy of Maoist policies and even touted as a contender to join the elite cadre within the party’s politburo Standing Committee.

On Thursday, however, Bo Xilai, the former party chief in the major industrial city of Chongqing, is expected to face charges of corruption, accepting bribes and abuse of power at what is billed as China’s trial of the century.

The hearing, which will be held in Jinan, capital of the eastern province of Shandong – far from China’s political heart, Beijing – is one of the most sensitive legal cases the country has seen in decades. It is not only for that reason that it is likely to be a brief affair; the verdict is likely to have already been decided.

The scandal surrounding the Bo family centres on British businessman Neil Heywood, who was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room in November 2011. Soon afterwards, the then Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, who was also Mr Bo’s right-hand man, turned up at a US Consulate accusing Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, of murdering Mr Heywood over a business dispute, and seeking asylum in the United States. 

In August last year, Ms Gu was handed a suspended death sentence for Mr Heywood’s murder. A month later, Mr Wang was found guilty of defection, abuse of power, taking bribes and bending the law for personal gain, and given a 15-year jail sentence.  

Gu Kailai, whom Wang accused of killing Mr Heywood Gu Kailai, whom Wang accused of killing Mr Heywood (AP)
Now it is the turn of Mr Bo who was stripped of his offices in the wake of the scandal. The trial is a key test for China’s President, Xi Jinping, who promised to crack down on political corruption when he became leader in November 2012. He is also under pressure from Mr Bo’s political and public supporters, as well as his many political enemies.

“If Mr Bo’s case comes to a smooth close, it will be a win for Xi and help his further consolidation of power,” said Ho-fung Hung, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Seen as suave and handsome, Mr Bo, 64, is a “princeling” – a Communist Party blue blood. His father, Bo Yibo, was the last of a group of party leaders who consolidated their power in the 1980s and 1990s, oversaw the Tiananmen Square massacre, and are known as the “Eight Immortals”.

He polished his reputation in recent years as the mafia-busting party chief in the south-west city of Chongqing, cracking down on corruption and building low-cost housing.

His success won him popular support, and many bloggers still support Mr Bo on Sina Weibo – the Chinese version of the banned social networking website Twitter – which offers one of the few platforms for the Chinese to debate current affairs.

“From the people’s perspective, regarding his performance during his time as leader, Chongqing was at its best for 10 years and people have felt peaceful, stable, and the bad things have been swept away. The economy grows fast. Viewed from this aspect, Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun are real heroes,” wrote Weibo user Ke Wang Qing Tian.

Former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun Former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun (AP)
However, there is also a deep resentment about political corruption and abuse of power among ordinary people who feel the elite is rarely held to account for crimes. This sense of injustice about corruption worsens as the wealth gap in China widens.

The raft of sleaze and corruption stories that now permeate China’s media is partly a result of a fairly recent government move to allow more reporting on official graft – in what has been received as an effort to show that the party is taking steps to address it.

Though this has increased public anger to some extent, for some, the move also appears to be working as the Party intends. Qian Ye Xiongmao, another Weibo user, wrote that if the ruling against Mr Bo is harsh, it shows that anyone who breaks the law has to answer for their crimes. “No matter how high level they are, how powerful they are, how many good deeds they have done.”

Lu Sanming wrote: “The trial of Bo Xilai will surely act as a warning for other officials. In a society of law, fighting corruption will be the main tune in China.”

Mr Bo’s time in Chongqing did not just win him praise – it also made him powerful enemies. He led calls for a return to old-fashioned communist values, something which set him on a collision course with more pro-capitalist factions in the previous government of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, and it isolated him from the more reform-minded constellation of the Standing Committee that was emerging around Mr Xi and Premier Li Keqiang. The verdict will need to appease these rival factions if Xi is to preserve stability.

The announcement that Mr Bo would stand trial in Jinan on Thursday came on Sunday in a succinct statement carried by the Xinhua state news agency.

Mr Bo was indicted on three charges on 25 July – that he allegedly took advantage of his position to seek profit, embezzled a large amount of public money, and abused his power, Xinhua said, without adding much detail. Just how much money is the subject of intense  speculation, with numbers ranging from millions to the billions.

More detail about the case has since emerged, not least from Mr Bo and Ms Gu’s son, Bo Guagua. There is speculation that Bo Xilai has cooperated with investigators, as his wife did before him, in order to guarantee his son’s wellbeing. There have been reports that Ms Gu may even testify against her husband.

Murdered Briton Neil Heywood Murdered Briton Neil Heywood (AP)
Educated at Harrow, then Oxford and Harvard, and now reportedly planning to attend Columbia Law School, the younger Bo issued a statement to The New York Times today claiming he has been denied contact with his parents for 18 months. He also said he hoped his father will be granted the opportunity to answer his critics and defend himself fairly at trial.

“However, if my well-being has been bartered for my father’s acquiescence or my mother’s further co-operation, then the verdict will clearly carry no moral weight,” he wrote.

Those details that do emerge at the trial will be managed by the Party. The Jinan court has said the proceedings will be “open” though reporters have been told its 300 seats are already full. The court opened its own Weibo page to update the public, but it is mostly filled by pro-Xi rhetoric.

The verdict itself is expected to come quickly. In an attempt to manage the expectations of the rival factions, analysts believe Mr Bo is likely to escape the death penalty, but will receive a very lengthy jail term, allowing the Party to close the cell door on a case that has already aired too much of the its dirty laundry.

Trail of events: Bo Xilai’s fall from grace

6 February 2012 Wang Lijun, Chongqing’s former police chief, flees to US consulate in Chengdu, ostensibly to seek asylum. He is persuaded to leave and detained by authorities.

15 March Bo removed as party chief in Chongqing over Wang Lijun incident.

10 April Bo stripped of Communist Party posts and his wife, Gu Kailai, investigated over death of British businessman, Neil Heywood, in November 2011.

9 August Gu Kailai goes on trial for Mr Heywood’s murder. Court says she does not contest charges.

20 August Gu Kailai given suspended death sentence.

5 September Wang Lijun charged with defection, power abuse and bribe taking. Later convicted and jailed for 15 years.

28 September Bo expelled from Communist Party, and the following month is expelled from parliament.

25 July 2013 Bo charged with corruption, bribery and abuse of power.

18 August China sets Bo Xilai trial for 22 August.

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