Bo Trial a Pivotal Moment for Economic Reform

As the erasure of Bo Xilai’s legacy continues and his trial for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power looms, Benjamin Kang Lim and Ben Blanchard report that division over Bo’s fate may be holding back economic and political reform:

Senior Communist Party officials worry that Bo’s core constituency – conservative leftists as well as the economically dispossessed – will be inflamed by a harsh verdict: the death penalty or even life in prison.

The risk is that Bo’s supporters could remain a brake on the reforms that favor private businesses and greater reliance on market forces.

“Bo Xilai still has many supporters and sympathizers in the party, the government and the military,” said a party source, requesting anonymity due to the political sensitivity of the case.

[…] Left-leaning sympathizers are nostalgic for the idealistic early days of Communist rule, when there was a deeper feeling the party was “serving the people” rather than providing some sort of vehicle for get-rich-quick schemes. [Source]

At The New York Times, Pin Ho also warns of a potential backlash after Bo’s trial:

Most Chinese know that Mr. Bo, with his flamboyant egotism, was no angel. Under his crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing, opponents were imprisoned, tortured and executed, or lost their jobs and assets without due process of law. But they also believe that those who brought him down may be even more corrupt or despicable.

A lengthy prison term might turn Mr. Bo from a grasping regional politician into a national symbol, or even a martyr. At a time of rampant corruption and social injustice, many see him as a charismatic leftist who at least dared to challenge the status quo of organized crime and official self-dealing and to revive Mao’s socialist, egalitarian ideals. The appearance of pro-Bo images alongside Mao portraits at anti-Japan nationalist demonstrations last September and the arrest on Monday of a Chinese reporter who had urged people to protest the forthcoming trial are signs of this mood. [Source]

Reuters’ source noted that “it will be difficult to please both factions regardless of how heavy or light the sentence is.” Beyond the Party, too, while some see Bo as a political victim and his treatment as unfairly harsh, others expect that his rank will allow him to get off relatively lightly. From Ma Jian, for example, at Project Syndicate:

[… C]harges that Bo received ¥20 million ($3.2 million) in bribes and misappropriated ¥5 million are trivial compared to those leveled against Liu Zhijun. Thus, with his level of bribery deemed small, and his wife artfully scapegoated, the only high crime of which Bo stands accused is dereliction of duty. By limiting the charges, the CCP has limited the possible punishments.

As always where the Party is concerned, Chinese law is mere window dressing. The law is applied sparingly, if at all, to the Party elite, and the interests of justice (at least as the outside world understands the term) are rarely the highest priority in such situations. A trial such as Bo’s is invariably part of a political deal among insiders. [Source]

State media has repeatedly proclaimed that Bo’s fate shows no one is above the law. Many are skeptical. But despite the likelihood of an engineered verdict and the long delay in preparing the case, Rebecca Liao sees hope in Bo’s trial for rule of law in China:

The immediate response is, of course, that the legal showmanship, though novel, is really just a sham. In the sense that the verdict was determined far in advance by political deal making, then yes: the whole exercise is meaningless. But if the Chinese government now views the law as something to be navigated and not simply ignored, then it has already overcome a significant ideological obstacle. Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law who secured a place at NYU for dissident Chen Guangcheng, mused that Party leaders would think of Bo’s trial in the following terms: “Should it be extensive and televised like that of the Gang of Four, or truncated and regimented like that of [Bo Xilai’s wife] Gu Kailai?” Both the henchmen of the Cultural Revolution and Gu were afforded nothing more than a show trial. But for Bo, the Party has conceded that state action must find a justification in the framework of law. Ironically, then, one of China’s staunchest opponents of the rule of law has helped lay its foundation. [Source]

In a less encouraging development, Reuters’ Sui-Lee Wee reports that authorities have barred Gu Yushu, a lawyer chosen by Bo’s sister, from defending him:

Bo will be represented by two lawyers, Li Guifang and Wang Zhaofeng. Li had told Reuters that he was appointed by Bo. But the state-owned Global Times newspaper later reported that Li had been “assigned” by the government-run Beijing Legal Aid Center. Li could not be reached for comment.

[…] “For such kinds of cases, who will act as lawyers are all arranged by the higher ups,” said He Weifang, a law professor from Peking University who has followed the Bo case. “Whoever acts as the lawyer will not affect the outcome of the trial.”

Two lawyers previously hired by Bo’s family, Li Xiaolin and Shen Zhigeng, told Reuters last year they had not been given permission to either see Bo or represent him. [Source]