Why the trial of Bo Xilai speaks ill of China – a country he was once tipped to rule

It's another brick in the wall


He was China’s almost-man, the charismatic Communist Party aristocrat who shrugged off the persecution of his family during the Cultural Revolution to come within grasping distance of the most powerful job in the land. But last year all that ambition unravelled, and tomorrow Bo Xilai goes on trial accused of corruption and abuse of office.

Billed as China’s most sensational trial since that of the Gang of Four, the event is set to disappoint. Seats were reserved for journalists, but all have been mysteriously filled. Although the charges are complex – stretching from alleged abuses in Manchuria to the purchase of a luxury villa in Cannes – we are unlikely to learn much that is new. The verdict will have been agreed on before the process begins.

Mr Bo was a colourful and intuitive politician in a land of grey and cautious consensus men. Playing the Chinese tradition of guanxi – favours given and returned, often over the course of many years or even generations – for all it was worth, he seemed likely to break into the Politburo while still a relative stripling. Instead, he was put in charge of Chongqing, where he showed his taste for flamboyant populism, building social housing, launching a  high-profile assault on organised crime, and reviving Maoist songs and slogans that had been out of favour for three decades.

Like any other ambitious politician, he made enemies along the way. But what felled him was not the corruption for which he is to be tried. It was the bizarre murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood, supposedly by Mr Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, who was convicted of the crime last year. When Mr Bo’s closest confidant fled Chongqing and requested asylum in the US, pouring out details of Mr Heywood’s murder and much else, the wall of silence behind which Chinese politics is conducted was shattered. From then on, Mr Bo was a marked man.

Many reformists in Beijing are heartily glad of the opportunity to be rid of Mr Bo and kill off his attempt to bring back the populist politics of Mao in any form. The West, too, may be relieved that China is not once more setting off down that alarming path. But what President Xi Jinping offers is barely more attractive.

An internal memo leaked this week vowed to wage war on seven “Western” dangers, including human rights, press freedom and judicial independence. The early hopes that Mr Xi would move China in a liberal direction are therefore on shaky ground. And the notion that Mr Bo’s corruption was worse than that of his senior party colleagues is laughable. One reason that the trial will be so quick and opaque is to minimise the opportunities for debate about Communist Party ethics. 

What Mr Bo’s fall exposes is a system that can brook no challenge, from  neo-Maoists or liberal reformers. Judged by this week’s events, progress will be a long time coming.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer - Permanent - London - Up to £50k

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum 23 days holiday plus Pension scheme: Clearwater Peop...

Physics Teacher

£130 - £162 per day + UPS: Randstad Education Hull: Physics Teacher Long Term ...

IT Technician (1st/2nd line support) - Leatherhead, Surrey

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Technician (1st/2nd line support)...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

Day In a Page

Read Next

We need to talk about homophobia in the police

George Gillett

i Editor's letter: Summer holidays are here... so what to do with the children?

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn