With the announced sentencing, the Bo Xilai trial is at an end, at least for the time being. In fact, this is a trial where Bo himself, the Chinese government, and the Chinese people are all winners. The only lamentable fact is that China’s legal system is still so flexible that it permits what looks like a Hollywood movie with the CCP leadership as the director, Bo Xilai as the lead actor, and a satisfied audience.
For Bo Xilai, his sentence of life imprisonment is not a surprise. His defense in court did not influence the result much, but his court performance made him a winner. He denied all of the charges against him, upholding his image among his supporters. His supporters can still believe that Bo is an unlucky official who had a bad wife who took advantage of Bo’s power for money and property. Once again, Bo proved through his performance in court that he is a persuasive speaker, and more importantly intelligent enough to execute an effective court strategy.
Before the trial, he cooperated with the leadership and accepted some of the charges when he was investigated by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the CCP. The leadership then narrowed the scope of charges against Bo, focusing the trial only on bribery in Dalian and his misuse of power in handling his Chongqing police chief’s escape to the U.S. consulate. Bo and the leadership must have also reached an agreement that the names of current and former CCP leaders and any political issues would not be mentioned during the trial. However, after the trial began, Bo still denied all of the charges against him.
The prosecution was poorly prepared for the sudden change in script. The prosecution had already planned its case, so arranging new witnesses was not possible. Bo’s skilled and carefully planned defense also made the prosecution’s arguments look weak. Bo took advantage of knowing the evidence that would be used against him ahead of time, since most of it came from his wife. During the five day trial, Bo went to great lengths to portray his wife as mentally unstable and unfaithful in an attempt to undermine her credibility. At the same time, he attempted to generate public sympathy for his cause by painting himself as a dedicated public servant and an unwitting husband.
The CCP leadership is also a winner. Although Bo denied all charges, this was hardly a surprise to senior leaders. Moreover, Bo’s vigorous defense made the trial more realistic and interesting. Some officials and scholars have already said that the trial is a success for China’s legal development. The most significant success for the leadership is that the trial focused only on bribery and not on political issues, especially the debates over China’s future political path. So the Party’s core interests remained unharmed.
Also, many of the details disclosed during the trial made the Chinese people more aware of the Bo family’s extravagant life, such as his son’s chartered trip to Africa with friends, the villa in France, and his wife and son’s lifestyles while abroad in Europe and the U.S. Regardless, if Bo knew all these details before his downfall, they have convinced many that he is not suited to be a state leader. After all, many would argue that a man who cannot manage his own family cannot manage a country.
In this case, Xi Jinping is a winner. Many Chinese commented on social media comparing the families of Bo and Xi; Xi’s family was viewed far more favorably because there were no scandals about his wife and daughter. On another note, the government has been very creative. While it did not allow live broadcasting of the trial, the transcripts of the proceedings were provided on Weibo, available to all and updated promptly. So the government can claim this as huge progress for China’s legal system. However, the transcripts were released with a short delay in order to allow the government to control what was released. The end result is that people were given access to the juicy details of the Bo family’s life but remained ignorant of sensitive political issues that Bo reportedly raised. In sum, the CCP leadership successfully portrayed itself as open, confident and innovative.
For the Chinese people, the trial—and especially the detailed transcripts that were released—generated satisfaction and excitement across the country. Many commented that the five days felt like a Hollywood movie. The plot of the movie was a genre that Chinese audiences have long enjoyed, an imperial court soap opera. Some netizens joked on Weibo that they expected to watch a movie about princes’ power struggles, but soon found themselves enjoying a love story full of murder, infidelity and betrayal of one’s lord. Thus, people were excited about the trial and comfortable enough to make jokes online. These funny and creative posts provided additional entertainment in themselves. So the trial became a holiday for the Chinese people. The government successfully transferred people’s attention from politics to entertainment.
Therefore, everyone is a winner and gets what he or she wants. However, if we compare this trial with the trial 33 years ago of the Gang of Four, which included Mao’s widow Jiang Qing, the deep sadness is the lack of improvement in the Chinese legal system. While China has risen to be the second economy of the world and has made significant improvements in many areas after three decades of development, the country still has a long way to go to establish an independent judiciary with due process. Such an independent legal system has played an important role in facilitating political reform and social progress in many countries, including nearby South Korea and Taiwan.
With the curtains of China’s political theater closed, the CCP leadership should no doubt receive an Oscar for best director. They demonstrated impressive innovation and creativity in handling Bo’s trail, and successfully transformed the biggest political crisis for the Party since 1989 into a soap opera.
Indeed, Chinese have never lacked innovation and flexibility. However, today’s flexibility could plant the seeds of bigger troubles in the future. In particular, when a country lacks the rule of law and inflexible legal procedures, history can easily be changed by unexpected developments rather than planned actions. Looking back to what happened over a year and a half ago, if it had not been for Wang Lijun’s unexpected escape to a U.S. consulate, it’s likely Bo would have joined the ranks of the Standing Committee of the Politburo. He had already formed a coalition among top officials and enjoyed strong popular support. Actually China and the world should be grateful to this police chief; his unconventional attempt at self-preservation changed the course of history. Only because of this incident did the top leaders have the chance to dispose of Bo before he had gained enough power to mount a larger challenge to their position.
Wang Lijun, not Bo Xilai, should be given the Academy Award for best actor.