The Legacy of Bo Xilai

Recent Features

Features | Politics | East Asia

The Legacy of Bo Xilai

The former Chinese political star receives a surprisingly harsh sentence, even as some of his politics survive.

As expected, Bo Xilai, the disgraced former party boss of Chongqing and a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, was found guilty of corruption and abuse of power by a court in the city of Jinan on September 22. Despite a dramatic and vigorous self-defense put up by Bo during his four-day trial in late August, the three-judge panel, who had no real discretion in determining Bo’s fate, was not swayed. That politics, not the law, was in charge of the trial of Bo was made subtly clear by two minor but revealing oddities about the manner in which the verdict itself was announced. Normally, such verdicts are made public on a workday, but September 22 was a Sunday. Unless we believe that Chinese judges are an unusually hardworking lot and the Bo verdict had to be announced on a day usually reserved for rest and relaxation, it is safe to assume that they were instructed by higher authorities to issue the verdict on that particular day. There is further evidence that the verdict originated in Beijing, not Jinan, because the official news agency, Xinhua, reported the verdict roughly 40 seconds before the court released it via its weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter).

If a guilty verdict for Bo was predetermined by his former colleagues and political rivals, the severity of his sentence – life imprisonment – did catch many by surprise. After Bo’s trial, most analysts expected him to get between 15 and 20 years because the other two Politburo members purged before him received, respectively, 15 and 18 years. To add insult to injury, Bo was shown, after the verdict was read, handcuffed and crestfallen. This little theatrical touch was apparently designed to humiliate the once-swaggering princeling who refused to admit guilt or show repentance during his trial. (Again, neither of the two former Politburo members was shown in handcuffs.)

So there is one plausible conclusion to be drawn from Bo’s sentence. He received a harsh sentence not because of the substance of his crimes. In fact, the three charges against him – embezzlement, bribery and abuse of power – excluded the worst acts he perpetrated as the party boss of Chongqing. During his four-year reign as the city’s unchallenged ruler, Bo sent many innocent businessmen to jail and confiscated their assets on trumped-up charges of association with the mafia. Some of them were executed. Had Bo been charged with these crimes and convicted, a life sentence would seem positively lenient.

If Bo’s ambition, aggressiveness and ruthlessness threatened his rivals and constituted his real crime, he compounded his offense with a rare display of public defiance against the party during his trial. For a party that does not brook any challenge to its authority, Bo must be punished severely to deter future imitators.

That leaves us the question of whether a life sentence truly means the end of Bo. At the moment, the conventional wisdom is that Bo is finished, both politically and personally. There is simply no way he could make a comeback.

This assessment, however, does not consider two possibilities. The more likely scenario is that Bo still has influential friends inside the regime. They could intercede in a few years to seek a quiet medical parole for him, even though under Chinese law Bo will not be eligible for medical parole until he has served 13 years of his life sentence. But we all know the malleability of Chinese law under one-party rule. The less likely, albeit conceivable, scenario is a revolutionary event in China that fundamentally alters the status quo. Bo’s supporters may gain enough power in such a scenario to free him from jail and revive his political career. Obviously, this must happen before Bo becomes too old and infirm. Since fallen senior Chinese officials continue to receive excellent healthcare and accommodation in jail, Bo should fare physically better than most inmates.

The most striking irony of the Bo Xilai saga is that while the antagonist is headed to jail, perhaps for a long time, part of his political legacy has not only survived his fall, but also become an essential element of the party’s new strategy. The new Chinese leadership, undoubtedly the greatest beneficiary of Bo’s purge, has been devoting considerable energy to strengthening its authority and attempting to project itself as strong and decisive – in the same manner Bo presented himself to the public in Chongqing. Although the new leadership has carefully eschewed Maoist political symbols, such as “red songs” and “red dances” that Bo cynically exploited to boost his image, it is worth noting that the political rhetoric and slogans initially coined by Mao have made a spectacular come-back in the official lexicon and are now part of the daily official propaganda. Bo used an anti-mafia campaign to purge political rivals and steal wealthy businessmen’s assets. The high-profile anti-corruption campaign launched by the new leadership, although long overdue and quite popular, is suspected to be targeting political rivals as well. Most disconcertingly, the new leadership is using rule by law to silence China’s vibrant social media. The Chinese authorities have arrested several prominent online commentators on questionable charges, such as “rumor-mongering, blackmail, and fraud.” The chill now being felt in China’s intellectual and media circles is reminiscent of the reign of fear instilled by Bo’s Maoist tactics in Chongqing a few years ago.

Now we might have some clue why Bo chose to be defiant and angry. He saw that his rivals have appropriated his political strategy without giving him proper due. But such defiance and anger, unnecessary and counterproductive in Bo’s circumstances, are his tragic character flaws. He should have known better: imitation is the ultimate form of flattery.