The trial of Bo Xilai

After months of speculation, the fate of Bo Xilai, former Party Secretary of Chongqing and one of the country’s best known ‘princelings’ seems to have been settled. On the same day that Beijing announced the date for its orderly transition to new leadership on November 8, state media revealed that Bo would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law on charges that include “significant responsibility” for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, accepting “huge bribes” throughout this political career, and somewhat curiously, “improper sexual relations with many women”.

Bo is the third domino to fall in China’s most significant political scandal in decades. Last month, his former police chief Wang Lijun received a 15-year jail sentence for charges that included his attempted defection to the United States and complicity in concealing Heywood’s murder. In August, Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, received a suspended death sentence for the Heywood murder – which will likely translate into a life sentence in prison.

One of the fascinations of the scandal – which began when Wang Lijun’s sought sanctuary in a United States consulate in February — is the dilemma it creates for the Politburo. Before his downfall, Bo was strongly favoured for appointment to the Politburo’s Standing committee, a perch that would have made him invulnerable to the public comeuppance he is currently enduring. According to The Telegraph, ‘well-placed sources in Chongqing’ said the party debated whether Bo’s case should be handled internally or left to the mercy of the courts, until “they realised that he still has quite a following, and could have made a comeback. So then they decided to get rid of him thoroughly.” The editor of China Business News outlined the Party’s dilemma in even starker language: “Do not investigate and everything looks heroic. Investigate and everything looks criminal. To investigate or not investigate, that is the question.”

One major consequence of the decision to try Bo is that during the once-in-a-decade moment that Beijing chooses to emphasize political stability and continuity, it is also being forced into a wager on transparency. Opening Bo’s entire career to public scrutiny is a gamble that will have far-reaching implications, especially since much of China’s recent prosperity has been distributed so unequally. Despite China’s huge and well-funded censorship, there is growing public awareness of the impunity that allows the country’s social and political elites to live safely above the law.

Reports that Bo Xilai was attempting to hide up to US$100m in foreign accounts, that he used public funds to maintain scores of mistresses, and wiretapped even his own anti-corruption officials, will only exacerbate the already considerable tensions even further.

Beijing’s power brokers are well aware of how costly scandals can be. In March of this year a black Ferrari that reportedly cost as much as US$1m crashed in Beijing. The vehicle reportedly contained a young man and two partially clothed young women. When reports surfaced that the driver was Ling Giu (son of one of President Hu’s senior aides, Ling Jihua) state censors were forced to block and delete search terms for “Ferrari,” “Prince Ling,” and “car sex.” That has been the standard Chinese response to scandal within the ranks of the political elite;  Bo’s public trial is a brave, possibly foolhardy step into the terra incognita of genuine accountability.

In recent decades, Beijing has displayed a mastery of message control. It routinely out-manoeuvres foreign and domestic critics with a Machiavellian mix of hard and soft power. Journalists and writers who speak truth to power disappear into prison with long sentences and hard labour.

Ethnic and religious minorities, especially the Tibetans and Uighurs in Xinjiang province, are subjected to arbitrary arrests, mass displacement, deprivation of local languages and customs and a host of other harassments. If these result in civil unrest, the government responds fiercely, often brutally, and censors all news of the resistance. How many Westerners, for instance, are aware that, according to Radio Free Asia, since 2009 more than 50 Tibetans have burned themselves in public, most of them fatally, to protest China’s occupation? Likewise, how many outsiders know anything of Beijing’s extremely severe suppression of Falun Gong, or the equally troubling allegations that the state has allowed organ harvesting from prisoners.

A glimpse of the government’s inner workings is unlikely to stop at stories of wiretaps and mistresses, but China’s leaders also realize that transparency can serve the country’s long term interests. For while the country’s growing freedom of expression unnerves the political elite, it also provides the state with a wealth of much needed anti-corruption measures. Balancing the conflicting demands of power and good governance will likely prove a perilous undertaking for the current elite, but the country may well have crossed its Rubicon already. For, as the New Yorker’s China correspondent Evan Osnos observes: In seeking to purge [Bo] with a finality that can restore short-term political balance, the Party may have raised a more dangerous spectre: the full-scale accounting of a life in government. The results could reveal a culture of self-dealing and personal enrichment that exceeds even the Chinese public’s considerable tolerance of official abuse. It may start a conversation that will be hard to end.”

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