Tuesday, October 15, 2013

To the surprise of no one...

(originally published on Murder Is Everywhere, 10/2/13, with a few additional thoughts added here)

Bo Xilai was found guilty.

(Bo is over 6 ft. tall, so those are some very tall cops!)

For those unfamiliar, I wrote a little about Bo Xilai and his criminal case here and here. It truly is one of the most bizarre, Byzantine and fascinating political scandals of...maybe ever, but at least of the modern political era. I won't recap it again here (for one thing, I just got back from Bouchercon and a few post-Bouchercon events and...well, if you've been to Bouchercon, you'll understand! I need to sleep for about a week). But since my second post, a few more highlights of the trial were: Bo called his wife "crazy" (she's the one who supposedly murdered British businessman and fixer, Neil Heywood) and accused his once loyal righthand man, ex-police chief Wang Lijun, of having an affair with her. So, there's that.

What did surprise many observers was the severity of Bo's sentence -- life in prison, with the possibility of parole after a decade or so. Many had expected he'd get closer to 10 - 20 years, given his high "princeling" status. Also, the evidence presented in court was not terribly compelling--it was the sort of petty corruption that as one internet wag remarked, didn't even rise to the level of village headman. 

But there were many factors at work here. 

The first was the manner in which Bo proclaimed his ambitions before his downfall. While there might be some sympathy for his neo-Maoist politics (how deeply Bo believes in them is another question) Bo, with his American-style glad-handing, crowd-pleasing style, openly campaigned for high office. This. Isn't. Done. Decisions are made behind closed doors, and the battles are largely unseen. 

Another was the current regime's desire to prove to the Chinese people that they are serious about tackling corruption, that they are willing to take down as high profile a leader as Bo Xilai, the son of an "Immortal." This is problematic, because the public suspects that most if not all Chinese leaders are in some measure corrupt, and if they aren't corrupt, they are so privileged that the distinction really doesn't matter. In fact, much of Bo's popularity stemmed from his anti-corruption campaign in Chongqing, and I can't really say if his downfall increases peoples' cynicism that "they're all the same," or if it reinforces a belief that anyone who really takes on the system will be brought low. Probably both, depending on who you talk to.

I think that Bo Xilai's unpardonable sin in the eyes of the current leadership was that he openly campaigned for high office. It threatened the hard-fought, behind the curtains consensus that has governed the succession process since Deng Xiaoping. His use of Maoist tropes suggested that he was willing to mobilize "the masses" to gain power, and that is a red-hot button for the leadership. They do not want to see a return to the violence and chaos of the Cultural Revolution period, but more to the point, they do not want to see a leadership selection process or the rise of a populist movement that's outside of their control.

Bo might have gotten a lighter sentence if he'd accepted his fate, admitted his guilt, thrown himself on the mercy of the court, but he did none of those things. He challenged the government's case every step of the way and loudly proclaimed his innocence. Now, he is appealing his verdict. How that will work out in a legal system largely designed to reinforce the Party's will is anyone's guess. 

But most observers agree that the government didn't do a very good job of presenting the case against Bo, that when it came to the charge of abusing his power, they weren't willing to dig very deeply at all. From all accounts, Bo's anti-corruption campaign was also a tool used to punish his political enemies and to extort money from businessmen who were not his allies. The abuse of power was very real and very deep. But the real facts of Bo's case too clearly illustrate the arbitrary nature of authority in China. And apparently the new leadership isn't ready to tackle that.


Anonymous said...

Given the rise of the "Populist" Tea Party in this country, I sometimes wonder if the Chinese way of selecting its leaders is all bad.

Cara Lopez Lee said...

Wow. Fascinating story, Lisa. Sure you aren't going to base a murder mystery on it? I, for one, would read it!

Other Lisa said...

Well, I'd originally planned on basing a book on this when it wasn't such a big story. Now, I feel like it's just too well-known, and besides, as fiction? Who would believe it?

Thijs said...

No, Lisa, this story is NOT to well known at all, maybe by you because you are a watcher of Chinese society, but not by other people.
In fact is there anyone who grasps it totally?
I think it's a good idea to base a book on it.

I heard a lot about Bo Xilai, but didn't exactly know what it was all about.
Now that I've read your post I understand it all a bit better.
His unpardonable sin, I guess, was that a stranger, a Brit, was involved in the murder complot of his wife.
If the victim had been a Chinese person, the case wouldn't have gotten that many attention outside of China.
Britain could well have laid some pressure on Chinese responsables to bring the case to a just trial, I imagine.

Besides, what about Gu Kailai, Bo's wife, who is said to have committed the murder.
Has she been found guilty?
Has she been sentenced?
I heard say that the wifes of China's leaders are more powerful than their spouses.

Best greetings,

Other Lisa said...

Hi Thijs! Nice to hear from you! I have another post right below this one that gives more background on the case -- yes, Gu Kailai was convicted and is serving life in prison. I will drop a couple more links here because the comments where that pieces was originally posted have some great insights from a very smart China watcher.


This one covers some of Bo's trial:


Thijs said...

The other post about the case read it too.

Wang Lijuns pretended "vacation style medical treatment" probably means a stay in a wellness center.

The story of Gu Kailais body-double is really astonishing.
I guess this is what you refer to with bizarre and over-the-top.
Are you sure it's her serving life in prison? It's rather the poor body-double!!
I don't understand how people can accept this.

Courts always have had to deal with the problem of mistaken identities, especially in the past.
People who knew the accused had to testify in front of the court they recognized the accused.
Such a procedure is maybe inexistent in Chinese trials.