Nearly a year and a half after he was detained, the trial of former Politburo member Bo Xilai finally kicked off in China last week.
In the run-up to the trial many observers hailed it as a test of Xi Jinping’s commitment to the rule of law. This is ludicrous.
To begin with, if Bo’s case is a proper test of the Chinese leadership’s commitment to the rule of law, then certainly they have failed. Bo was detained amid great secrecy back in March 2012 and hadn’t been seen or heard from since until his trial began. He was presumably being held in a secret location by the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, a body that operates under extreme secrecy and holds itself as above the law. Indeed, the outcome of the commission’s investigations—including the torture that is believed to be used liberally during them—ultimately dictates the outcome of the legal proceedings that follows them.
Besides a short statement announcing that Bo had been detained, followed by one saying he’d be expelled from the Party, Chinese authorities have said nothing about Bo until they announced his trial dates last week. It was at this time that the world (and possibly Bo himself) first learned what the former Chongqing party secretary was being charged with. People may differ in their definitions of the rule of law, but Bo’s detention has failed to meet even the most non-sensible interpretations of the term.
More to the point, Bo’s case is a particularly poor example for judging China’s commitment to the rule of law. Michael Pettis has decried economists for often using Apple products as a “typical” example of a Chinese export in their studies of China’s trade behavior. Contrary to theses economists’ claims, Pettis rightly notes, Apple products “are most certainly not the best example of Chinese exports. The only reason they show up as ‘typical’ examples in every article is precisely because they are so atypical and represent such an extreme case of assembly value added…. Most international trade does not consist of Apple products.”
In the same vein, most Chinese criminal prosecution cases do not consist of high-profile former Politburo members like Bo Xilai. Indeed, a number of crucial factors—such as the potential destabilizing divisions the case presents to wide sways of the Party and nation— make Bo’s case exceptional even among political corruption cases. A country’s commitment to the rule of law can’t be judged primarily by highly-visible, politically-charged cases like Bo’s, but rather by the much more numerous and mundane cases considered in the aggregate. China will be governed by the rule of law when the nation’s laws are effectively and consistently applied by independent judges to all Chinese citizens regardless of their wealth and political connections, or lack thereof.
Some may counter that Bo’s case is important in demonstrating if Xi and the leadership’s commitment to tackling corruption among the “tigers” within the Party’s ranks. But this too fails to pass muster. By all accounts, Bo was believed to be seeking an appointment to the Politburo Standing Committee with the hope of challenging and possibly usurping Xi’s first among equal status on that body.
Seen from this light, Xi had more of an incentive than most for wanting to see Bo purged from the Party. And the willingness to arbitrarily apply the law to political opponents does not demonstrate an individual’s commitment to the rule of law, but rather his or her commitment to succeed in a party that lacks it.