BEIJING — The melodramatic trial of Bo Xilai, the former elite Communist Party official, has been trumpeted by the state media here as a sure sign that Chinese citizens enjoy the benefits of a robust legal system.
On Monday, The Study Times, a weekly party journal, published a commentary titled “A Look at Judicial Openness Through the Bo Trial” that was typical of the line taken by other state media organizations. It argued that the transparency and process of the five-day trial “displayed China’s confidence: the confidence of the rule of law; confidence of the facts; confidence of the ability to distinguish right from wrong.”
Few legal and political analysts would make such grand assertions. But there is a debate in China over whether the trial, in which Bo was charged with bribetaking, embezzlement and abuse of power, has contributed to any progress in establishing an independent judiciary with due process in this country, where the party rules the courts, or whether it amounted to little more than political theater.
Perhaps the clearest sign that the trial was a show — if a spectacular one, with salacious testimony about a love triangle, a multimillion-dollar French vacation villa and a private jet to Tanzania — came in the form of relentless headlines and articles in the official media that condemned Bo even as the trial was still unfolding.
Most Chinese followed the trial through this coverage, and they saw headlines like this one on the website of People’s Daily, the party mouthpiece: “Prosecutors: Bo Xilai Pleads Not Guilty, So He Must Be Strictly Punished.”
The party also kept the charges confined mostly to financial transgressions from early in Bo’s career and did not address the well-known human rights abuses from his recent stint as party chief of Chongqing, because that would have touched on party politics. And political analysts and party insiders say a guilty verdict for Bo has almost certainly been predetermined.
But some liberal legal scholars have praised the relative transparency of the trial, because party leaders unexpectedly allowed many of the edited court transcripts to be posted on a running court microblog even if crucial testimony that implicated other leaders was kept secret.
“It was open, and the defendant’s rights were well protected,” said Zhang Qianfan, a law professor at Peking University. Another scholar, Tong Zhiwei, said: “The Bo trial was more open than any other corruption trial of high-ranking officials in China.”
The trial could impress on some Chinese the importance of legal procedures, analysts said. Viewed purely through that prism, the trial was an extraordinary one: Several important witnesses for the prosecution appeared in court, giving Bo the chance to cross-examine them; the judges allowed Bo to state that he wanted to retract a confession he had made under “mental strain”; and the transcripts gave the public a (somewhat blurred) window into the courtroom.
These are all elements missing from most Chinese criminal trials. The length of the trial also came as a surprise to many — previous trials of this nature, including the related ones last year of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, and the former police chief of Chongqing, Wang Lijun, lasted just one to two days. Gu was convicted of the murder of a British businessman, and Wang of defection and other crimes.
Even legal scholars who applauded the new style evident in Bo’s trial recognize that it was an exception and not necessarily a model. Given Bo’s popularity among ordinary Chinese, which he bolstered by pushing neo-socialist policies in Chongqing and his revolutionary family’s standing within the party, leaders no doubt felt compelled to allow Bo his say, within narrow parameters.
The trial could, in theory, win over skeptics who were convinced the purging of Bo last year was the result of political rivalries. Allowing the public to see Bo cross-examining witnesses added legitimacy to the trial, and the more impassioned his arguments became, the more the public would believe he had been given a sufficient platform.
That seemed to be the calculation, at least, but many of Bo’s supporters, especially residents of Chongqing, in southwest China, remain unconvinced.
“We all agree that he is the victim of a political power struggle, that his fall had absolutely nothing to do with a paltry 20 million renminbi,” said Li Meishu, a young elementary school music teacher in Chongqing, referring roughly to the amount in bribes that Bo and his family are accused of taking.
Many others have echoed Li’s sentiments. Party leaders had obviously hoped that ordinary Chinese had become so upset at endemic corruption that attaching a $3.5 million figure to the bribes Bo was accused of taking would be enough to tar him. But corruption has become so widespread that many Chinese see the figure as a hypocritical cover for a political purge.
Legal scholars say it is unlikely that the Bo trial will be replicated wholesale across the justice system, even if the party leader, Xi Jinping, has pledged to bring down “tigers and flies” in an anti-corruption drive. Since the investigation into Bo, there have been notable inquiries into other so-called tigers accused of corruption, including Jiang Jiemin, the Central Committee member close to Zhou Yongkang, the former security chief and ally of Bo. But none of those figures have a grip on the public imagination like Bo does, and their cases, if they went to trial, would not necessarily demand as many trappings of legal legitimacy.
Likewise, there is little in the way of due process to be seen in the recent clampdown on free speech, which includes detentions of liberal Chinese citizens.
Bo was given leeway to speak in court, but there were obvious limits. He commented only on his family’s lifestyle and finances. The public transcripts did not show him raising questions about the political infighting that many say led to his downfall.
“Bo Xilai served the party very well in the trial,” Chongyi Feng, an associate professor of China studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, said in an email. “He demonstrated the progress of the rule of law in China with his rigorous defense. He also toed the bottom line and protected the party by not revealing any scandals of his former Politburo colleagues. Understandably the verdict negotiated before the trial will be released in due course, irrespective of the court procedures.”