Bo Xilai Trial: Reactions

The long-awaited trial of fallen Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power concluded on August 26th after five days, three more than expected. The date of the verdict’s announcement has yet to be decided. See updates posted before and during the trial at Bo Xilai Trial: Liveblog, and later ones below, latest first.

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Samuel Wade August 30, 20134:13 PM

In a ChinaFile Conversation on the Party’s putative fear of its own fragility, Ouyang Bin links Bo’s case with that of Xu Zhiyong, who was formally arrested a week ago.

What do Bo Xilai, the aggressive advocate of Maoism and ambitious princeling just tried for corruption, and the perseverant constitutionalist and moderate scholar Xu Zhiyong have in common?

Both men are regarded as challengers of the power and authority of the Chinese Communist Party. This is why Beijing is so tense and why the leadership’s current behavior is confusing to many people: the CCP thwarted Bo’s Maoist campaigns by putting him on trial and also detained Xu and smeared his so-called Western ideas.

[…] Beijing feels tense because the challenge may come from anywhere and everywhere—from lawyers, journalists, and peasants losing their lands; even from within its own Politburo. The Party’s tension and consequent repression makes everyone in China feel correspondingly tense. [Source]

Samuel Wade August 30, 20133:56 PM

After reporting on Tuesday that Gu Kailai and her son Bo Guagua might now face prosecution for economic crimes revealed during the trial, South China Morning Post’s Teddy Ng surveys the younger Bo’s options:

The proceedings appear to have limited Bo Guagua’s options; his mother is serving a suspended death sentence for murder and his father is waiting for what will almost certainly be a guilty verdict.

Moreover, evidence presented at court portrayed him as a pampered playboy who benefited from his mother’s ill-gotten money, making it even harder to return home.

[…] However, June Teufel Dreyer, a professor of political science at the University of Miami in Florida, said Guagua would have been too young to be deeply involved in any crimes his parents might have committed, and the central government would be unlikely to prosecute. [Source]

Bo recently enrolled at Columbia Law School in New York.

Samuel Wade August 30, 20133:35 PM

Despite Beijing’s framing of the Bo trial as a centerpiece of its anti-corruption efforts, relatively little analysis has focused on this aspect of the case. Many see the anti-corruption label as merely a cloak to conceal political machinations. From AP, for example, on Friday’s reports of an impending investigation of Bo’s former ally Zhou Yongkang:

“I think that the anti-corruption effort is just a political weapon used to take down whoever they want to take down,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian and elite politics expert. “Because when there is widespread institutional corruption, anti-graft efforts are not going to clean up the system. They are a means to get rid of political opponents.” [Source]

The relatively small scale of the economic crimes with which Bo was charged, the belief that he was in any case no more corrupt than many other officials, and the awareness that political wrongdoing was carefully left out of the indictment have all fed this impression. While much of the trial fizzed with colorful revelations of sex, violence and mysterious meat, Zhang Hong wrote at South China Morning Post that the mechanical details of Bo’s alleged corruption were unremarkable. Bo’s head is likely to serve as a poor trophy, a feeble deterrent, and possibly even a useful lesson for other corrupt officials, the Post’s Cary Huang reported:

Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in England […] said the trial would not be enough to satisfy the anti-corruption sentiments in the country, but it would “mark ‘the bringing down of a tiger’, as Xi promised when he rose to the top”. “Few will be fooled, but it’s still better than not seeing this at all,” Tsang said.

[Xigen] Li, of City University [in Hong Kong], said the trial would not have an alarming effect on corrupt officials because cases like Bo’s could be manipulated to the point that the interests of the parties involved reached a balance.

“The case does allow corrupt officials to learn how to deal with their own material and monetary interests more tactically under the current situation,” Li said. [Source]

Tea Leaf Nation’s Rachel Lu, meanwhile, suggests that far from receiving an intended boost, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection’s credibility and perceived legitimacy may suffer from Bo’s trial:

The New York Times reports that, according to Bo’s family members, Bo told the Jinan court that “he had made one bribery confession last year to investigators only after being warned that his wife could be given the death sentence and his son, who had just graduated from Harvard, brought back to China to face charges,” and that “[Bo] had been interrogated hundreds of times and fainted 27 times.” In addition, according to the Hong-Kong based South China Morning Post, Bo testified that a high Commission official told him that “his charges could lead to a harsh verdict or a lenient one,” depending on his attitude.

These details were censored from the Jinan court’s Weibo tweets, likely to keep the Chinese public from learning about the Commission’s inner workings.

Bo’s parting shot at the Commission, however, may have long-term implications. The Commission probably prefers to uphold its image as the ultimate graft-buster, not a political machine manned by goons that threatens the lives of suspects’ families. [Source]

The trial has also prompted fresh and unwelcome calls, for example from Zhang Jiwei at Caixin, for mandatory disclosure of officials’ assets. The Diplomat’s Colleen Wong argues that unlike high-profile investigations and trials, this might offer a real remedy to China’s corruption problems:

The Chinese public has been calling for mandatory sunshine laws that force officials to declare their salaries, wealth, real estate, and other property since 1987. In 1995 the Party issued a regulation mandating that officials declare their wealth and assets to an internal Party body. Still, many have claimed the implementation of this order has been lax, and the information is in any case not publicly available. Consequently, 63 percent of corrupt provincial officials still get promoted even after they take bribes, according to a study by Tian Guoliang, a professor at the Central Party School.

Thus, the Chinese public appear no closer to having the Party heed their calls for sunshine laws today, then they were in 1987. Indeed, a series of pilot programs that were initiated in 2009 in places like Altay, Xinjiang Province; Liuyang, Hunan Province; and Cixi City, Zhejiang Province, have all been rolled back one by one. Some were eliminated because they were initiated by a single local leader, who subsequently retired or moved onto other areas. Other programs have been shuttered because of poor implementation. [Source]

Amid all this, Kathleen McLaughlin notes at Christian Science Monitor, little is heard from “the millions of Chinese people who have lost homes and property to corrupt development deals, or to businesses that have lost out to others that better curried favor with officials.”

Samuel Wade August 30, 201312:01 PM

The Economist wraps up Bo’s trial:

A verdict and lengthy sentence are likely to be announced soon. Officials want to put the embarrassing Bo episode behind them. A day after the trial, the party announced that a much anticipated plenum of its Central Committee would take place in November. The theme for it will be “all-round deepening of reform”, meaning economic reform. Mr Bo’s case is intended to show the rule of law at work, picking out a bad apple. But for many Chinese, the impression may be that Mr Bo’s bullying and corruption was exceptional only in its flamboyance. Some may think it is the whole way of carrying on politics, with the seamless conjoining of the public and the personal, that should be in the dock. [Source]

Samuel Wade August 29, 20134:55 AM

While Bo’s sentence remains unknown, in at least one respect his story and those of Wang Lijun and Gu Kailai ended similarly. Xinhua published extensive accounts of Gu’s, Wang’s and Bo’s trials after they finished. Each report concluded with quotes from a local resident who had managed to gain access to limited seating in the courtroom. Each observer expressed satisfaction at the proceedings, and confidence in the equal application of the law and fairness of the verdict:

“This case has drawn great attention from the public,” said Jiang Tao, a local resident from the Yaohai District of Hefei. “I attended the full hearing and felt the solemnness of the court and inviolability of the law.”

“The public trial shows that everyone is equal before the law. I hope that the court will make a fair judgement in accordance with the law,” Jiang Tao said. [Source]

After the trials, Wu Qunfang, a resident from the Taoyuan community in the Chenghua District of Chengdu, said that after the trials they have fully understood the beginning and subsequent development of Wang Lijun’s case.

“We believe that all is equal before the law and expect a fair verdict from the people’s court,” Wu said. [Source]

“This is my first time to sit in the public gallery to hear the trial of a high-ranking official, which let me learn lots of the details of the case,” said Kong Xiangying, a resident in Tianqiao District, Jinan.

“Bo Xilai once was a senior Party official, but everybody is equal before the law. I believe the court will surely give a fair ruling,” Kong said. [Source]

Samuel Wade August 29, 20134:38 AM

Xinhua has released an extensive summary of Bo’s trial, including the four days of testimony, his refusal to admit guilt, and the prosecutors’ resulting argument for a heavy sentence.

“Wang’s defection caused vile impacts at home and abroad and undermined the image of the Party and country,” he said. “I am deeply ashamed and filled with regret, but I did not intend to misuse my power.”

He also denied the bribery and embezzlement charges against him. “The charges are not true. My mistake, which was serious, was that I did not discipline my family and subordinates.”

[…] Although the country’s legal system has a principle of tempering justice with mercy, a heavy sentence in line with the law should be handed to Bo, as he committed very serious crimes and refused to plead guilty. Considering that the accused did not turn himself in or disclose another person’s crimes, he is not subject to any terms of leniency by law,” prosecutors said. [Source]

This argument aligns with the political goal of decisively neutralizing Bo. But with many unconvinced by the evidence against him, and his courtroom performance winning over even some former critics, Bo’s sentencing is subject to pressures in both directions. From Benjamin Kang Lim and John Ruwitch at Reuters:

“Bo is the biggest threat to Xi. If Bo is not executed or does not die of illness, the possibility of Bo staging a comeback one day cannot be ruled out,” a source with ties to the leadership, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.

[…] In a poll on Weibo, more people who had a negative view of Bo before the trial said their impression had improved than those who said their impression of him had deteriorated by a margin of about three-to-one. Of those who said they had a positive impression to begin with, five-in-six said their view became even more positive.

“From a common sense judgment there is no evidence against Bo Xilai, and so the leadership’s dilemma is what to do,” said Bo Zhiyue, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, who is not related to Bo Xilai.

“If you still want to sentence Bo Xilai you will lose credibility saying this is a country of rule of law. But if you let Bo Xilai go free, who can handle Bo Xilai as a free man?” [Source]

Samuel Wade August 29, 20133:48 AM

Gu Kailai’s tragedy, Chang Ping suggests at South China Morning Post, is partly that she was unwilling to meekly play the role expected of her as the wife of a rising official:

[… The] struggle for power is a man’s game; a woman, no matter how ambitious, has to be content with petty politics. Of course, there’s still plenty to fight over, but all the wealth and privilege a woman may have flows from men’s largesse. A women’s world has its own rules, and a woman’s place is to support her man in his fight to win power and riches. If she can’t contribute ideas and strategies towards that goal, she can at least pledge her obedience and loyalty as a wife and provide him with a safe and happy home.

Gu railed against playing the wife’s role but could not give up the privileges it accorded her – thus laying the seeds of her tragedy. The case files of the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection are full of corrupt top officials who have slept around. Without exception, they kept a mistress or two; and, almost without exception, their wives chose to tolerate it. But when Gu first found out about Bo’s infidelity, the court heard, she took off to England in anger with their son, who enrolled in school there. The talk was that she even found new love. [Source]

Lauren Hilgers and others have written that Gu later had another role thrust upon her, scapegoated as the traditional villain, the corrupting wife. The consequences could include her prosecution for economic crimes on top of her existing murder conviction, and similar charges against her son, whom she was reportedly trying to protect.

Others found comedy in Gu’s actions, however. A round-up of online jokes about the trial at South China Morning Post includes: “While your daddy might set your starting point in life, your wife is the one that determines your final destination.”

Samuel Wade August 29, 20133:15 AM

At The Economist’s Analects Blog, Kathleen McLaughlin describes Bo’s bold strategy of cultivating Japanese investment in Dalian:

When the ambitious Mr Bo took over as mayor of Dalian in 1993, he also took risks. Then a sleepy backwater, Dalian had few attributes he could use to boost his career. He seized on an idea that was potentially politically dangerous: heavily courting investment from the city’s former occupier, Japan.

[…] Dalian’s relationship with Japan began violently, as Japan forged its way toward creating a new nation with territory in China. For 40 years until 1945, Japan controlled the city, using it as the main trading port between China and Japan. The Soviet Union then took over for five years before turning it back to China, but those long-standing links with Japan left a legacy in Dalian. [Source]

Samuel Wade August 27, 20136:13 PM

Caixin’s Zhang Jiwei highlights the glimpses that Bo’s trial offered of the mutual “infiltration” of officials’ and businessmen’s affairs, arguing that this demonstrates the need for new controls:

In Bo’s position, a nod or even a gesture of acquiescence could directly translate into an opportunity for profit. This is how Dalian businessman Tang Xiaolin pocketed millions of yuan from the reshuffle of government-owned Dalian International Development Ltd. and reselling auto import quotas. With Bo’s backing, Xu gained from a deal to buy a soccer team and an investment in a chemical project.

[…] Anti-corruption officers should use the case as an example of the dangerous links that can form between officials and businessmen. It is proof that a mechanism must be set up to limit the power of officials, prevent their relatives from using their offices for private gain, and require officials to make their assets and finances public.

A number of activists calling for asset disclosure have been detained or arrested in recent months. The issue of business dealings by officials’ families is similarly sensitive, especially following last year’s exposés on Xi Jinping’s and Wen Jiabao’s family wealth from Bloomberg and The New York Times.

Samuel Wade August 27, 20135:57 PM

At China Real Time, Jeremy Page and Yang Jie asked lawyer Li Zhuang, one of Bo’s victims in Chongqing, for his impressions of the trial. Bo’s performance was “remarkable,” he said: outwardly impressive, but hollow.

About the openness of the trial, it goes without saying that this has never happened before. It’s unprecedented in the history of the Chinese legal system, but I still dare not say if it will happen again. In terms of the importance of this trial, I think this is a bellwether or milestone that could be a good start for people’s courts at every level. It could be a symbolic signal of new judicial reforms following the appointment of Zhou Qiang as supreme court chief.

[…] If you think back to Chongqing, Bo Xilai’s comments in court are really preposterous. He made one remark saying he hopes the court won’t listen just to the prosecution because police, prosecutors and judges should restrain each other and supervise each other to avoid any miscarriage of justice. When I saw that remark, I laughed out loud. What he did in Chongqing is poles apart — the exact opposite — of what he said in court… [Source]

Jackie Sheehan similarly argued during the trial that “Bo Xilai cared nothing for fair trials in China until he found himself in the dock,” citing Li’s case as an example. See details of Li’s ordeal and his own earlier reflections on Bo’s Chongqing via CDT.

Samuel Wade August 27, 20135:21 PM

Artist Ai Weiwei comments on the trial at Bloomberg:

Bo’s case must have felt to party leaders like a tumor growing near a carotid artery — too dangerous to treat, yet too aggressive to be left alone. All involved are members of the social and political elite, starting with former Politburo member Bo; his wife, Gu Kailai; the police chief of Chongqing, with whom she may have been having an affair; a murdered British business partner; top Chinese and foreign businessmen; even Bo’s son, a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School.

[…] Bo comes from a deep-rooted, revolutionary Communist family and was a political superstar before his arrest — one of the most active and high profile members of the pro-Mao, “Red Second Generation.” He represents every bit of the leadership’s thinking today; his style, experience, energy, passion and political stance pretty much define the core values of the “Chinese Dream.” If even he could be brought low so thoroughly, what chance does an ordinary citizen have? Nobody can be safe when values such as human rights, freedom of speech and judicial fairness are sacrificed to serve the interests of political elites. [Source]

See more from Ai on the trial via CDT.

Samuel Wade August 27, 20134:47 PM

South China Morning Post’s Xu Donghuan notes that Bo’s self-deprecating remarks about locally-made suits on the last day of the trial may be misleading, as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both wear suits from Dalian’s Dayang Trands:

“I can tell you, the jacket that I’m wearing and the suits in my wardrobe were produced by a township business in Xinjin county of Dalian. I have no interest in what I wear. The long johns that I’m wearing now were bought by my mother in the 1960s,” he said.

[…] Bo’s tailoring choices may have been modest, but the suits from Dayang Trands are certainly not what everyday Chinese can afford. Their prices ranges from 5,000 yuan to 80,000 yuan (HK$6,300 to HK$100,600 [up to US$13,000]). Tailor-made ones can be even more expensive. [Source]

The age of Buffett’s and Gates’ underwear is unknown.

Samuel Wade August 27, 20134:15 PM

If, as Bo suggested, Gu Kailai’s testimony against him was intended to lighten her own punishment and protect her son, it may have backfired. Prominent legal scholar He Weifang called on Monday for Gu and Bo Guagua to be charged over the bribery that she described. On Tuesday, Keith Zhai and Teddy Ng reported at South China Morning Post that such a prosecution is “almost certain”:

Legal experts said both Gu and Guagua were culpable and that Gu should be prosecuted for economic crimes as well as murder. She should also appear in court to answer the charges.

“Legally speaking, Gu should face additional charges other than murder given her involvement in those business dealings,” said Si Weijiang , a Shanghai-based human rights lawyer.

[…] However, it is unlikely that Gu will be given a tougher penalty as she is already serving a suspended death sentence. [Source]

At Dissent Magazine, Lauren Hilgers suggests that scapegoating Gu was all part of the script, allowing Bo to stage a face-saving self-defense which also boosted the trial’s credibility:

Gu Kailai is a dragon lady for the ages. Throughout China’s history, women with allegedly huge sexual appetites and a lust for power have been blamed for the fall of empires. Chinese legend holds that Empress Wu Zetian, who ruled form 655–683 BCE, corrupted monks and hired them to perform acts of sorcery. Empress Cixi pushed her son’s favorite concubine down a well. If you believe the court ruling, Gu poured poison down an Englishman’s throat.

[…] Bo can be a star in a scandal that does nothing to address the levels of corruption among top officials. His wife can take the lion’s share of the blame. The appropriate players will get sentenced, everyone is entertained, and very little actually gets done. [Source]

Samuel Wade August 27, 20134:15 PM

Former Mexican ambassador to China Jorge Guajardo reminisced about his acquaintance with Bo Xilai on Monday:

See more at Guajardo’s Twitter account.

Samuel Wade August 27, 20134:15 PM

Samuel Wade August 27, 20134:15 PM

Foreign Policy’s Isaac Stone Fish describes how far Bo’s trial defied expectations:

The timing, at least, turned out to be true: Bo Xilai’s trial began on Aug. 22. But as for many other details about the trial, we in the foreign press were way off. Bo’s five-day trial featured explosive allegations, remarkable transparency — the court in the provincial capital of Jinan, where the trial was held, released much of the testimony via their microblog — and a command performance by Bo himself.

[…] Beijing managed to keep much of the Bo saga — and the elite machinations that precipitated it — from the foreign press. As humbling as it may be to admit, we know very little about what goes on at the highest levels of Chinese politics. The most honest headline I’ve seen recently — and it must have driven its editor crazy — came from Voice of America in early August: “China’s Biggest Corruption Trial in Decades Remains a Mystery.” [Source]

Looking on the brighter side, The Guardian’s Jonathan Kaiman highlights five things learned or confirmed during the course of the trial:

The Chinese Communist party can put on a riveting show […]

Bo has not been cowed […]

Ordinary Chinese people care about high-level politics […]

China’s top leaders and their families live as extravagantly as imagined […]

Some things stay the same – Theatrics aside, the party has left no doubt about who is in control. […] [Source]