Writing the Official Narrative on Bo Xilai

With Bo Xilai’s formal indictment and his trial set to open as early as next month, the Chinese government is working to set the official narrative of the case. Bo, who was popular among many of his constituents, was also a renegade leader who operated very independently from Beijing. The central government is pushing the line that Bo’s main offense was not listening to the center, while also using his case as a prime example in the official anti-corruption drive. From Reuters:

Bo’s ouster exposed deep disagreements in the party between his leftist backers, who are nostalgic for the revolutionary era of Mao Zedong, and reformers, who advocate faster political and economic reforms.

Bo committed serious crimes and will be indicted on the charges of bribery, embezzlement and power abuse, state news agency Xinhua quoted the indictment as saying. He had been informed of his legal rights and interviewed by prosecutors, it said.

Bo, as a civil servant, took advantage of his position to seek profits for others and accepted an “extremely large amount” of money and properties, Xinhua said.

“No matter who you are, whether you have a high or low position, you will be severely punished if you break the law,” state media cited Friday’s People’s Daily as saying in an editorial. [Source]

State media has tread a fine line between supporting popular, leftist policies Bo implemented in Chongqing and condemning his personal actions. His case is a litmus test for Xi Jinping’s declared war on corruption, but also an opportunity for the central government to strengthen its own hand. From the South China Morning Post:

“The party’s central leadership has separated Bo Xilai’s personal issues from the development of the whole of Chongqing,” an article by the People’s Daily Online said on Thursday. “It does not deny Chongqing’s successes in its economic and social development and affirmed the contributions by Chongqing officials.”

[…] The central leadership “has high hopes for party and state officials at all levels, and has [feelings of] inspiration and trust towards the Chongqing leadership at all levels, the party and state officials and the masses”, the People’s Daily wrote.

A comment piece by Xinhua state news agency was more straightforward in its explanation why the son of the early Communist Party hero Bo Yibo had to fall from grace: a local “tiger” had become too powerful.

“China’s historical experience has shown over and over again that the nation’s long-term stability can only be secured by protecting the authority of the central leadership,” the article reads. [Source]

Upon assuming the office of the president in March, Xi Jinping announced his government would be fighting corruption among both the “tigers,” or high officials like Bo, and the “flies,” or lower-level cadres. Yet while making Bo’s case an example in this fight, the government is handling it very differently from high-profile cases in the past, such as the Gang of Four trial in 1980. In a roundtable discussion on China File, Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan says:

When I asked Chinese friends why the trial was being delayed so long, they said it was because Bo was refusing to admit he had done anything that all the other leaders didn’t also do. Without his cooperation, the trial could not go forward. There may also have been disagreement among the leaders about how harshly to treat him. Apparently this multi-sided negotiation has now been settled, and from the tiny bit of information I’ve seen so far what strikes me is the relatively anodyne nature of the charges—corruption and abuse of power, the same thing that every other fallen politician is charged for these days. Nothing about murder, nothing about spying on other party leaders, nothing about what in the Mao days was called a “line struggle” (an ideological struggle over the country’s direction in which the losing side was considered to have committed ideological heresy), nothing about an attempted power seizure. Compared to the trial of the Lin Biao-Jiang Qing Counterrevolutionary Clique in 1980, this would seem to be set up as a pretty quiet affair. [Source]

For Human Rights Watch, legal scholar Jerome Cohen goes into more detail comparing the two trials:

Will Bo be given a similar political “show” trial, as the most recent heir to a Communist legal tradition made infamous by Stalin’s “purge trials” of the 1930s? How far has the PRC come in its march toward “a socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics” in the more than three decades since the prosecution of its best-known political defendants, the Gang of Four, introduced the PRC’s first codes of criminal law and procedure?

Developments to date suggest that the prosecution of Bo will fall short of the possibilities suggested by the Gang of Four trial. For some months after the announcement that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was being investigated for the murder of her English business associate, Neil Heywood, it appeared that Bo might not be prosecuted at all, at least for involvement in the murder. Elaborate efforts seem to have been made to keep Bo’s name out of Gu’s murder trial—something that would not have been done, presumably, if a decision had been made to prosecute him for related misconduct. When the scandal originally broke, the then Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had promised that Bo’s case would be handled “strictly according to law.” Nevertheless, for many months Bo, unlike his wife, was detained incommunicado not by the legal system but by the Party Discipline and Inspection Commission (DIC) in accordance with its own extra-legal procedures.

Because Bo retains support among some of the Party’s civilian and military elite, as well as among many ordinary people, apparently the leadership initially decided to detain Bo indefinitely, but informally, in order to minimize popular disruption. This was to be done without prosecution or any legal authority, keeping Bo in relatively comfortable circumstances similar to those in which the late Party chief Zhao Ziyang was illegally confined for his last 16 years after the June 4,1989 Tiananmen tragedy. As the 18th Party Congress approached in late 2012, however, a new political decision was made, for reasons as yet unknown, to bring a major prosecution against Bo, reportedly for a range of official misconduct including bribery, abuse of power, improper interference with the investigation of the Heywood murder, and illicit sexual affairs. Having detained Bo in March, 2012, not until late September did the Party DIC turn him over to the procuracy for criminal investigation and indictment. [Source]

Part of the government’s strategy of managing the narrative of the Bo case is to limit what is reported by the media (and searchable on Sina Weibo) while posting online commentary that is supportive of their position. The Wall Street Journal tracks some of the pro-government online chatter about the case:

“I believe in the party and I believe in the government,” wrote another. “No matter who you are, if you break the law you should receive legal punishment.”

Those and many similar comments were left by accounts with few followers and only a handful of posts, suggesting they were work of what Chinese Internet users refer to as a “water army”–a group of anonymous Internet commenters who use so-called zombie accounts on social media sites to influence conversations. [Source]

And more translations of weibo comments from Tea Leaf Nation:

@笨笨糖q:The Chinese Communist Party Central Committee pays great attention to this case, and has reacted quickly and enforced the law with strength, fully showing our Party’s determination to fight corruption.中共中央对此案的高度重视、快速反应、惩处力度,充分表明了我党对腐败的惩治决心。

@pipipi1991:All are equal before the law, and no corrupt person is excused. The trial of Bo Xilai fully demonstrates the Central Committee’s determination to fight corruption. I support the central government, I support the trial! Anyone who violates the law should be seriously punished.法律面前人人平等,对任何腐败分子都决不姑息。薄熙来案件审理充分体现了中央反腐决心,支持中央,支持审判!任何人只要触犯了法律,都该严惩

@下雨天适合睡懒觉:I trust the Central Court will definitely fairly and justly carry out the trial. Every person, regardless of their status, must be punished in accordance with the country’s laws. [Source]

Meanwhile, the Global Times published an editorial in English asserting the Bo case is an example of Beijing’s commitment to fighting corruption at all levels:

The Bo case, once again, proves the anti-corruption determination of China’s ruling Party and the whole society. Such determination comes from the political consciousness of rulers on the one hand, and on the other hand, it is the unwavering choice of a society that values the rule of law.

As China pushes forward the rule of law, it will take ruthless measures against corruption. The recent downfall of a number of senior officials is not the result of just a temporary anti-corruption campaign. The punishment of corrupt officials is the task of society based on the rule of law.

Bo Xilai might have thought he would escape punishment for his corruption. Some other officials holding significant power might think the same. But after waves of anti-corruption drives, their hubris may be diminished. The cases of Bo Xilai and former rail chief Liu Zhijun will ring like an alarm bell at all levels of officialdom. [Source]

While the anti-corruption drive has netted both “tigers” and “flies” so far, some have expressed concerns over the lack of transparency in the campaign, especially with the unexplained disappearance of several local officials. From the Wall Street Journal:

It’s not clear if these disappearances are the result of investigations into the officials in question, if the cadres have already been found guilty of corruption and detained, or if they’ve fled. According to the Legal Daily, even colleagues of some of the missing officials are unaware of their absent comrades, why they are not at their post or when or if they might return.

The mystery surrounding the missing bureaucrats highlights the downsides of reforms that fail to introduce more transparency into the current anti-corruption drive. As the report points out, there is a wide range of likely explanations for the disappearances and it’s possible that nothing untoward is going on at all – that the disappearances are normal departures and rotations that have failed to be properly noted. But with Chinese President Xi Jinping flogging anti-corruption as a pillar of his new administration, the risk is that the public will assume that the worst: that every missing official is guilty of graft, and that the government is failing to handle them properly. [Source]

When the government fails to offer transparency when investigating corrupt behavior, Chinese netizens fill in the gaps by rooting out evidence of improper behavior and posting it online. One source of information about corrupt officials is their jilted mistresses. The Washington Post profiles one such mistress, Ji Yingnan:

After years in which Communist Party officials were considered untouchable, evidence of their foibles now regularly spills onto the Internet. Government censors often try to stamp out the news, but officials plagued by sex scandals — usually at lower levels of the party — are also being pushed out as the country’s new leaders try to prove they’re serious about punishing misconduct.

[…] Political scandals centered on mistresses — who are known as “xiao san” or “little third” in Chinese slang — have become so common that the party’s official daily newspaper ran an editorial in May saying the country cannot rely on spurned lovers alone to expose its corruption problems.

“Some people have said that the anti-corruption departments at all levels perform worse than the mistresses,” said the editorial in the People’s Daily. “Although it’s a joke, it reflects a serious question: Whom should the anti-corruption effort depend on?” [Source]

For more examples of Chinese media coverage of Bo Xilai’s case, see a recent Danwei post. For more on the prospects for Bo’s trial, see a Q&A with Jacques DeLisle, a law professor and Director at the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, from the Atlantic. Read all of CDT’s coverage of Bo Xilai and high-level corruption in China.