China paves way for landmark trial in charging Bo Xilai
The controversial and charismatic Bo Xilai was aiming for the pinnacle of Chinese political power. Now he has been charged with abuse of power.
Chinese prosecutors formally charged disgraced political leader Bo Xilai with bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power on Thursday, setting the stage for the country‚Äôs biggest trial in nearly 40 years.
No date has been set for the hearing, which could open as early as next week, in Jinan, capital of the eastern province of Shandong. But the indictment, coming 16 months after Mr. Bo was detained, marks a bold step in the campaign against official corruption that new President Xi Jinping has made a cornerstone of his rule.
‚ÄúThis shows the current leadership is determined to send a message to senior cadres that no matter who you are ‚Ä¶ if you are guilty you can be tried,‚ÄĚ says Huang Jing, a specialist in Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore.
But the trial will be a delicate affair; Bo has extensive connections throughout the ruling Communist Party and remains a popular figure, admired for his emphasis on social spending and nostalgic ‚ÄúRed Song‚ÄĚ campaign, harking back to the days of Mao Zedong.
‚ÄúThis is a very, very difficult case,‚ÄĚ says Cheng Li, an expert on the inner workings of China‚Äôs political leadership at the Brookings Institution in Washington. ‚ÄúThe country is very divided and public intellectuals are divided over how to deal with Bo Xilai.‚ÄĚ
Bo, a charismatic and controversial politician, once aimed for the pinnacle of power in China as a member of the seven man Standing Committee of the Communist Party‚Äôs Politburo.
He was brought down in March 2012 when the former police chief in Chongqing, the city that Bo ran, sought asylum at a US consulate, bearing evidence that Bo had helped cover up the murder of a British businessman.
His wife, Gu Kailai, was found guilty of that murder in August and given a suspended death sentence. The police chief, Wang Lijun, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for initially covering up the murder and other crimes.
Bo ‚Äútook advantage of his position to seek profits for others and accepted ‚Äėan extremely large amount‚Äô of money and properties,‚ÄĚ according to the indictment, the state news agency Xinhua reported.
‚ÄúHe also embezzled a huge amount of public money and abused his power, seriously harming the interest of the state and people,‚ÄĚ Xinhua quoted the indictment as saying.
Proceeding with caution
Bo is most unlikely to contest the charges and will probably be sentenced to life in prison after a summary hearing, according to legal experts, pointing to the precedents of earlier corruption trials of senior officials.
‚ÄúThis will be a political trial with the results pre-determined‚ÄĚ by China‚Äôs political leadership, predicts Zhang Qianfan, a law professor at Peking University. ‚ÄúThey merely have to lay the evidence before the public.‚ÄĚ
Revealing too much evidence, however, might inflame public resentment against the Communist Party, whose legitimacy has been undermined by endemic corruption. Few Chinese citizens believe that Bo Xilai‚Äôs is an isolated case.
The fact that it has taken 16 months to lay public charges against Bo, who was expelled from the Communist Party in September, illustrates how cautiously the government has approached his case, and how politically sensitive it is.
‚ÄúBo Xilai is not just any party leader,‚ÄĚ points out Professor Huang. As the ‚Äúprinceling‚ÄĚ son of a revolutionary leader and figurehead for the Communist Party‚Äôs left wing ‚Äúhe is symbolic and has tight connections to different political and interest groups.‚ÄĚ
His indictment, suggests Professor Zhang, ‚Äúmeans that major power players in the party have reached agreement on how he should be tried,‚ÄĚ and how his trial should be used.
That could mean that President Xi has agreed not to use Bo‚Äôs case as a trampoline from which to continue his anti-corruption campaign, which would challenge powerfully entrenched vested interests within the ruling party.
But a successful trial could strengthen Xi‚Äôs position and lend his anti-corruption campaign further impetus.
‚ÄúThe risk is that the trial may offend some powerful players, and it could backfire,‚ÄĚ warns Zhang. ‚ÄúBut if Xi handles it well it could lead to even further investigations.‚ÄĚ
Should that happen, says Huang, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, ‚ÄúThis trial will not be the beginning of the end‚ÄĚ of the president‚Äôs anti-corruption drive, ‚Äúit will be the end of the beginning.‚ÄĚ