The five-day-long trial of Bo Xilai (薄熙來), the disgraced former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary in Chongqing, finished on Aug. 26.
Some people feel disappointed that things did not play out according to a script of the political drama they had in mind, while others feel the trial was entertaining, as if they had been watching a family quarrel.
However, compared with the trial of the Gang of Four in 1981, the Bo trial had five interesting aspects:
First, the Bo trial was a legal trial, not a political one. Nor was it a repeat of the trial of the Gang of Four.
That trial was about the politics of different factions in the Chinese government. It was weak because it tried to deny any involvement by Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來), while linking the Jiang Qing (江青) and the Lin Biao (林彪) cliques.
The four commanders in Lin’s clique — former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chief of the general staff Huang Yongsheng (黃永勝); air force commander Wu Faxian (吳法憲); naval political commissar Li Zuopeng (李作鵬) and PLA logistics department director Qiu Huizuo (邱會作) — have never been satisfied with the attempt to link Lin to Jiang and have all written books on the issue.
The Bo trial, on the other hand, was simple and went according to judicial process. Both the prosecutor and the defense exercised their rights according to the law, and Bo’s self-defense was impressive. The process was orderly and nothing went awry.
This was disappointing for those who were hoping to see a political drama.
However, what did go awry were China’s ideological schools of thought outside the courtroom.
On the first day of the trial, Bo withdrew the confessions he had previously made and defended himself in court.
The Chinese-language People’s Daily immediately ran a story calling Bo shameless, mad and a hypocrite, and even requested that Web sites reprint this criticism, although Bo was merely exercising his legal rights. The courts are yet to hand down a verdict, so it is difficult to understand why the paper was in such a rush.
The second aspect is that Bo’s performance was in line with his two-faced personality.
He is hypocritical and cruel, and sold out his wife in an attempt to get himself off the hook. However, he is not “mad” as the People’s Daily would like us to believe. He is in fact very clear about what he is doing. Whenever crucial evidence was involved, Bo denied any guilt and, by saying things like “I don’t remember,” “I am unaware of that,” or “that has nothing to do with me,” he skillfully exercised his right to defend himself.
This approach proved much smarter than the way the Gang of Four’s Jiang protested and the way Zhang Chunqiao (張春橋), another member, said nothing during their trial.
The only flaws in Bo’s performance were the brutal accusations he made against his relatives and close aides, and the lack of evidence he had to back up his comments.
Third, the methods the Bo family used in their corruption and bribe-taking were more complicated than anything seen before.
To invest in a luxury villa in Nice, France, the Bo family used three shadow companies to cover their tracks: one registered in the British Virgin Islands, one in Canada and another in France.
These methods were very different from the organized crime style extortions and blackmailing that former Executive Yuan secretary-general Lin Yi-shih (林益世) used in Taiwan.
Some people have said that given the position and power of Bo and his family, it would be easy for them to make a few hundred million dollars, and that there was no reason to get involved in corruption.
They use this as proof that Bo is a clean official.
Last year, during the National People’s Congress, Bo also argued with conviction that he and his wife did not own any private property and that their son Bo Guagua’s (薄瓜瓜) overseas studies were funded by “full scholarships.”
Now that all Bo’s secrets are out, all he can do is deny knowledge of everything and blame his wife.
This is what is so terrifying about “clean” officials and the way they conduct their corruption.
Fourth, one of the criticisms of the Bo trial is that it focused on less important issues, while ignoring important ones.
Bo has been charged with corruption, bribery and abuse of power, but that only reflects what he has been charged with.
He has done much worse things: for example, the “Sing Red, Attack Black” crackdown on organized crime that he launched during his time as head of Chongqing, which had striking similarities to the Cultural Revolution.
However, because the Bo trial was a legal trial, it had to be separated from politics and ideology. Bo’s “Sing Red, Attack Black” campaign was part of a much bigger political system. The campaign should therefore be reviewed by the CCP National Congress and the National People’s Congress and be solved by political, constitutional amendment and legislative means.
Fifth, the Bo trial represented an attempt at judicial reform. It has been said that both constitutionalists and those in favor of a dictatorship felt disappointed at the end of the trial.
It is not strange that those in favor of dictatorship and opposed to constitutionalism, the rule of law and an independent judiciary would be disappointed.
However, the constitutionalists should welcome trials that are carried out in line with procedural justice and encourage the application of its principles to all court cases, large and small, throughout China.
This is an important step in constitutional reform and a significant political aspect of this trial.
The Bo trial does not mark the end of the Bo case.
In a judicial sense, it is merely the beginning of the process.
Furthermore, the struggles going on between different political lines that exist outside the procedure are issues of constitutional reform.
This is where the Bo case differs from the situations involving former Beijing party secretary Chen Xitong (陳希同) and former Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu (陳良宇): It is not a simple criminal case or a power struggle.
The Bo trial marked an important starting point, and the people of China will hope that, from now on, Beijing will handle similar issues in accordance with the law.
Ruan Ming is a former speechwriter for former Chinese Communist Party general secretary Hu Yaobang.
Translated by Drew Cameron