As the riveting trial of Bo Xilai draws to a close, HRIC Senior Policy Advisor Gao Wenqian offers his views on what many media outlets have described as “the trial of the century.” The topics Gao discusses in his latest commentary on Bo’s case include: whether the “Weibo broadcast” of the trial was a sign of new government transparency, the charges for which Bo should have been tried but was not, and the trial’s political implications for Xi Jinping.
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Mr. Gao Wenqian, Bo Xilai's trial lasted five days, ending without a verdict. Can you comment on what went on in the hearing these past few days?
Many media outlets have called this the “trial of the century.” Bo is a high-ranking CPC official, the “lord” of Chongqing, and an icon among the CPC’s second generation. Naturally he has been watched closely. But I think what is more important is that the trial is a test for present day China’s judicial independence, judicial justice, government transparency, and rule of law.
As we saw during the trial, the contents of the trial were disclosed via a Weibo “broadcast.” Many people think that this was progress. What do you think?
I don’t see it that way. I think that even though the Weibo broadcast was progress, the CPC did not pass the test. Why? Because this trial is still a political trial, not a judicial one: it used the form of a judicial trial to settle a political issue. Bo Xilai was not prosecuted for things that he should have been prosecuted for. For example, Bo’s “Sing Red, Strike Black” campaign in Chongqing trampled on the rule of law and showed complete disregard for human life. There was no mention of it. Instead, they turned to corruption, dwelling on the trivial while avoiding the important issues. And they chose to convict him on these minor corruption charges. Doing this is inherently a political act. Due to this approach, in court, when Bo Xilai retracted his testimony, the cover of a judicial trial was blown. There was no way to continue the drama, and they landed in a predicament.
The trial’s predicament reflects a systemic predicament, and highlights China’s systemic judicial flaws. The so-called “progress” in form cannot cover up the lack of change in substance. In fact, they were still showing that the Party is above the law, and guilt is determined before trial. On this point, Bo Xilai was actually quite tactful: he cooperated with the authorities, and never crossed the mutually agreed upon “bottom line.” That’s why in his final statement at trial, Bo even said, "I let the Party and the people down."
Even if the trial was “broadcasted” on Weibo, it was still totally controlled by the authorities. For example, the first day of Weibo broadcasting made the Party look passive, and the content of the Weibo broadcast was significantly reduced on the second day. Also, what is very unusual about this trial is that it was not televised. On this point, they did even less than the public trial of the Gang of Four. Our generation all experienced it. At the time, there were few televisions, and I remember everyone squeezed into one room to watch the broadcast of the Gang of Four trial. Right now, aren’t the authorities touting the “Three Confidences” (in the Party’s theory, path, and system)? Why don’t they even dare televise the Bo Xilai trial for the ordinary people to watch? It is the citizens’ right to know. Where did the Party’s confidence go on this issue? Compared to the trial of the Gang of Four, this is a step backward, and the greatest mockery of the authorities’ “Three Confidences” statement.
How will the trial affect the future direction of China’s political situation?
I think it will affect it in many aspects, especially the ecology of the Xi Jinping regime. Xi started his rule with the “China dream” slogan. What is the “China Dream?” It is the dream of a one-party state, to preserve the Party and the “red” country.
In fact, in my opinion, Xi is pursuing Bo Xilai’s policy without Bo. Now, China is a severely torn society, where the rich and poor are against each other, and where Mao’s faction and Deng’s faction are against each other inside the Party. When Xi Jinping came to power, he sat on the fence in an attempt to reconcile the two factions, pursuing a policy that is "politically left and economically right."
Ever since he came to power, Xi has talked the talk of the left, praised Mao, and pronounced that the two thirty-year periods (revolutionary and reform) cannot refute one another. In my opinion, Xi is doing this because of a realistic consideration. He hopes to use Mao as capital to protect the one-party state, so that he can claim ideological orthodoxy. On the other hand—many have overlooked this—Xi is preparing to take down the Maoist left forces since Bo’s reputation is in ruins after the trial.
Through the trial, did Xi Jinping reach his objective of taking down the Maoist left?
I don’t think so. Because the trial went awry and, instead, gave Bo a chance to show that his red flag is still standing, that he is a defeated hero. In this situation, the Maoists' morale has been boosted; they think they have not followed a wrong leader, and that Bo is not only a man of steel, but also an honest official. Compared to Liu Zhijun (disgraced former Minister of Railways) or Liu Tienan (disgraced former energy chief), Bo’s bribe-taking of RMB 26 million—if he is convicted of the charge—is still much less than theirs. In this case, Xi’s plan to take down the Maoists failed. The Maoists are even more arrogant politically. They will control Xi from the left and cause him more trouble politically.
In short, Bo’s trial has caused Xi Jinping trouble. The reason is that Xi Jinping has tried to put his feet in two different “political boats.” Figuratively speaking, Xi’s one foot is in Mao’s boat while the other is in Deng’s, and the two boats are heading in different directions. You can say that Xi Jinping is doing a highly difficult split. If he is not careful he will fall into the water. Let us just wait and see.
Other commentaries by Gao Wenqian on the Bo Xilai case
Zhongnanhai Abandons Bo Xilai to Protect the Party, September 28, 2012
Gu Kailai's Indictment, July 27, 2012
Wenguang Huang on the Significance of the Bo Xilai-Wang Lijin Scandal, May 28, 2013
Video and book excerpt