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
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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.