China: Trial of Bo Xilai, most important in 30 years

Regime risks internal earthquake, as power struggle sharpens

Sally Tang Mei-Ching and Vincent Kolo

The outcome of the five-day trial of former top Chinese politician Bo Xilai in August wasn’t what Chinese leaders intended – in that it further exposed the corrupt nature of the CCP (‘Communist’ Party) dictatorship and its machinery of police repression. This was widely seen as China’s most important trial for 30 years. It provided a glimpse into the depth of the crisis within the state and ruling dictatorship.

Bo Xilai, a leading ‘princeling’ (powerful member of top CCP families) and ex-member of the CCP’s 17th Politburo, was brought down in 2012, and faced charges of embezzlement, accepting bribes, and abuse of power. The government leaders – Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang – aimed to use this trial to reinforce their campaign against corruption, upon which a lot of prestige is riding. They wanted to discredit and eliminate a troublesome political rival, but also to give the appearance of ‘progress’ in moving towards the ‘rule of law’ in China, by allowing a degree of openness at the trial. To this end, it seems a deal was made allowing Bo to challenge some of the charges and to cross-examine witnesses. But from the ruling clique’s standpoint this backfired badly, with Bo and his legal team all but taking over the trial.

The most revealing moment in the trial was when Bo said he had been coerced into making false confessions. “I admitted it against my will,” he told the court. While his statement only confirms what we already knew about the massive use of forced confessions in Chinese criminal trials, this has the effect of a bomb exploding when it comes from the mouth of a former top CCP leader like Bo Xilai. Bo has condoned similar methods, for example in his ‘strike black’ crackdown against criminal gangs in Chongqing in which thousands were arrested and faced summary justice.

Regime lost control

While there is no doubt he will be found guilty and given a long prison sentence (the judgment will be announced later), Bo’s trial did not follow the same tight script of previous high-level corruption cases. He denied all the charges against him (almost certainly going beyond any deal made before the trial), and conducted a defence described as “feisty” and “extraordinary” by media commentators. His defence succeeded in discrediting the reliability of the prosecution witnesses. This included his wife, Gu Kailai, in prison as a convicted of murderer and described by Bo as “crazy” and a habitual liar. Compared to the trials of former politburo members, Chen Liangyu (2008) and Chen Xitong (1998), which only took one day, Bo’s trial took a lot longer. The court case clearly slid out of the regime’s control.

After the trial, there is a widespread public impression that Bo is a victim of political persecution. Most people see the entire state apparatus as corrupt, with Bo Xilai no better or worse than other top officials in this respect. Those particularly on the neo-Maoist left, who see Bo as an alternative to the current neo-liberal leadership, were encouraged by his defiance. But even liberals and democracy advocates, who oppose Bo politically, have protested that this was a long way from a fair trial. A Weibo poll showed that among people who did not support Bo, three quarters had a more positive view of him after the trial.

The prosecution case also looked very weak, with almost no concrete evidence apart from witness testimony and Bo’s own confession. The prosecution was in disarray when Bo retracted his confession on all counts. The CCP-controlled judicial system relies heavily on confessions, often produced by force, for convictions. A report in 2011 by a Hong Kong-based law professor found that confessions were obtained in 95 percent of criminal cases. State media stepped up its attacks on Bo as the trial progressed, to cover up for the poor showing of the prosecutors.

The prosecution task was also complicated by the regime downsizing the case against Bo, with the charges covering only a fraction of his alleged misdemeanours. This has become the norm in top-level corruption cases. The regime does not want to expose the full scale of corruption involved, as this can bring down other officials and damage the entire regime. The charges against Bo covered only 25 million RMB (US$4 million) in corruption and bribes, and only involved the period he was running the city of Dalian but not his role in Chongqing (2007-12), which is more recent. It would have involved bigger sums, and ‘fresh trails’ leading to other senior figures. As commentators pointed out, 25 million RMB is not a large amount in terms of corruption today – there are even village officials who have stolen more money!

There were six charges cited against Bo by the state media in September when he was expelled from the CCP, including obstruction of justice and possible involvement in the murder of English businessman Neil Heywood, for which Gu Kailai received a commuted death sentence. As part of the deal to get Bo to trial the charges went from six to three.

Bo still has considerable backing and connections within the state hierarchy (from ex-president Jiang Zemin’s faction) and it is very likely that these forces exerted pressure on the CCP leadership to tread carefully (limit the charges) and also to grant Bo some leeway to conduct a defence. This is something Bo exploited at his trial. It is also possible that Bo was encouraged by these layers to mount a defiant defence as the power struggle in the ruling party seems to be widening, with moves being made against former security Czar and Bo ally, Zhou Yongkang, and several of his associates.

However, although Bo denied all the charges against him, his defiance did not go beyond certain limits. He did not expose the corruption of other leaders or directly attack the government or the legal system. He claimed he was “framed”, but only pointed to the prosecution witnesses, like the businessman Tang Xiaolin, when clearly, if the case is a frame-up, its real architects are the CCP leadership. This self-censorship was probably part of a pre-trial deal; but it also reflects Bo’s position as a top ‘princeling’ bound by a sense of self-preservation to the dictatorial regime, regardless of its current leaders.

Bo also did not stray from the official script in one other key respect: he made no reference to his political record as head of Chongqing. Yet this is the real reason he was purged. The majority of top CCP leaders opposed his pseudo-Maoist populism – the so-called ‘Chongqing Model’ – fearing this could become a rallying point for opposition to the regime. Bo refused to toe Beijing’s line on occasion and indulged in self-promotion in a bid for national office; these were unforgivable sins in the eyes of the central government.

Trial was “transparent” and “open”?

After the trial ended, the official media and others described Bo’s trial as “surprisingly transparent and open”. However, if we compare it to the trial of the ‘Gang of four’ in 1981 (Mao Zedong’s widow and three “leftist” co-defendants), Bo’s trial shows the legal system has actually gone backwards in terms of openness. In 1981, 900 people attended the trial, including 330 journalists. But Xinhua reported only 110 attended Bo’s trial, with only 19 – hand picked – journalists. No international journalists were allowed. The regime of Deng Xiaoping felt very confident in 1981, with initial strong support for its pro-capitalist reform programme, in contrast to today’s leaders who sit far less securely.

The ‘Gang of four’ trial was broadcast live, but in this case the ‘live’ reports were instead carried on Weibo (similar to Twitter), with the regime controlling what messages to release. The manipulation of these ‘real time tweets’ increased as the trial progressed and the prosecution case fell apart. Several important facts have emerged from sources inside the courtroom that were cut from the official microblog feed. For example there is Bo’s claim that his decision to dismiss former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun was approved by the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing under Zhou Yongkang.

The regime wanted to limit the content released, fearing they could lose control (as happened!). Bo’s effective performance at the trial is a sharp lesson to the regime, which in the future will be even more wary of allowing even limited democratic openings.

The verdict, due later, will also pose problems for the regime. If Bo is given too harsh a sentence (such as a death sentence, which is not likely), it can provoke protests, as the court case was so flawed. At the same time, if, as seems likely, Bo reneged on or ‘stretched’ the terms of a deal to challenge only certain points of the case against him, the regime will want to punish this defiance, not least to deter others. Noticeably, in his closing speech, the prosecutor called for a “severe punishment”, in contrast to the corruption trial of rail boss Liu Zhijun in June, when the prosecutor called for “leniency” as Liu had “cooperated” and confessed his guilt.

The likely sentence can be anything from 15-20 years jail to a commuted death sentence, as in the cases of Liu and Gu (although these involved more serious crimes). The state media has also raised the possibility of a new trial against Gu, for corruption, which conspicuously was never mentioned at her murder trial last year. This may be part of the retaliation by the state to punish Bo’s lack of “cooperation”.

Xi and his anti-corruption campaign

The ruling party leader Xi Jinping is trying to balance between different factions within the state to push through a liberal economic “reform” programme, while at the same time cracking down on calls for a loosening of political controls. Bo Xilai represents the wing of the ‘Communist’ Party that prefers more state capitalist control over the economy, while Beijing favours more market liberalisation.

Traditionally anti-corruption campaigns are not about corruption but rather a tool in the internal power struggle. Xi wants to weaken those factional interests that could obstruct his economic policies, and to gain public support by appearing to be tough on corruption. But this is also risky if the campaign goes too far; it can unleash an uncontrollable power struggle and engulf the regime. The masses will also be emboldened to fight against corrupt officials, as happened in Shaanxi province in July, when 10,000 people gathered outside a government office demanding action against a corrupt county official.

Power struggle continues

The power struggle does not end with Bo’s trial; there are signs it could spread like a fire. Key figures connected to Bo Xilai are either being investigated or removed from their positions. Zhou Yongkang, the former public security minister and an even more high-level figure than Bo, may be the next to fall. Zhou also controlled the monopoly of the oil sector – another reason Xi seems to want to bring him down. This may be part of a move to loosen the state monopoly and bring in more private investment.

Under Zhou, the state security apparatus grew to astronomical proportions, with a bigger annual budget than the military. A move against Zhou could therefore also be exploited for populist purposes by Xi, to give the appearance of curbing “abuses” of police power.

Since December 2012, several businessmen with connections to Zhou have been arrested in Sichuan, where Zhou used to be party secretary. Former vice governor of Sichuan, Guo Yongxiang, was placed under investigation in June this year. Four other core officials from CNPC – China’s biggest oil producer – have also recently been dismissed and placed under investigation. With Zhou at their head, these officials are part of the “oil gang”, so called because they control the state oil companies.

Another top-level figure, Jiang Jiemin, was removed on September 1, as director of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) on suspicion of “serious disciplinary violations” – code for corruption. Jiang is a previous chairman of the CNPC and close to Zhou.

The internal power struggle is linked to the economic policies the new Xi-Li leadership want to carry out and a struggle to curb the “vested interests” of various industry groups. The Xi-Li leadership wants more deregulation and private investments, to shake up the economy and – they hope – avoid a debt crisis. They seem to be targeting the oil sector, a stronghold of “vested interests” and resistance to reform, to carry through restructuring; following the example of the now abolished Railway Ministry.

Key industries are controlled by certain party leaders and clans (as outlined in a Wikileaks report, 2010). Li Peng’s family controls the electrical power sector; Wen Jiabao’s family controls the precious stones trade, while Zhou Yongkang and his allies control the oil monopoly.

It is clear that Xi Jinping has rejected political reforms (partial democratisation) and has in fact launched a new political crackdown. But he and Li Keqiang are doing their best to push economic reforms, while this will also stoke conflicts with other factions within the state, if this threatens their vested interests. Xi-Li’s economic reform aims to open up the state-owned monopoly sectors to greater “market forces” and private capital. The anti-corruption drive, which has become more extensive, is being used by Xi to cement his control over the regime and limit factional resistance to his new “structural adjustment” measures likely to be unveiled at the third plenum of the ruling Party’s Central Committee in November.

Counting Jiang Jiemen’s fall, three members of the Central Committee have been brought down in the last 10 months. The official media portrays this as great result for Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, but what it really shows is a sharpening power struggle, which may explode in the coming period. This struggle at the top reflects the sharpened class tensions in society and deepening economic crisis.

Socialists support none of the rival factions and groupings within the Chinese Communist Party, all of which are wedded to capitalist policies and repressive rule. There is an urgent need to build an independent working class and genuinely socialist alternative, for the huge political battles ahead.