The life of Bo Xilai, once a contender for the top leadership in the world’s second-largest economy, is one of great intrigue. A member of the Central Politburo and secretary of the Communist Party’s Chongqing branch from 2007-2012, he was ousted in China’s biggest political scandal in two decades last year following his wife’s murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood.
It is important to know how one of China’s biggest political scandal in years unfolded:
June 2009: In the huge central city of Chongqing, Bo kicks off an unprecedented anti-Mafia campaign he called “Smash the Black”. It won him huge popular support, but also created political enemies. His critics later claimed Bo used the city’s police force as a personal army, framing his rivals, extracting confessions through torture and confiscating millions, if not billions of yuan.
September 2009: Xie Dajun, a mid ranking Chongqing official, commits suicide after being forced to cheerlead a campaign to “sing Red songs”. Senior Communist party leaders state that Bo was stirring up dangerous Maoist populism.
August 2011: Bo orders a wiretap on a phone call between Hu Jintao and Ma Wen, an anti-corruption official. When it came to light, internally, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection began to look into Bo’s affairs.
November 14, 2011: Neil Heywood, 42, a British businessman and family friend, arrives in Chongqing and is murdered by Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai. Initially, Bo’s police chief, Wang Lijun, works to cover up the crime.
January 28, 2012: Wang Lijun turns on his boss, telling him that his wife is a suspect in Mr Heywood’s murder.
February 6: Wang Lijun flees to the US Consulate in Chengdu, where he hands over details on Mr Heywood’s case to diplomats before being taken to Beijing by Chinese investigators. He is thought to have given them more evidence of Mr Bo’s wrongdoings.
March 9: Bo makes a bullish appearance at the National People’s Congress, telling reporters that “dirty water” is being tipped on him and that he “trusted the wrong person”.
March 14: Wen Jiabao uses his speech at the National People’s Congress to warn that China should learn lessons from Wang Lijun’s attempted defection.
March 15: Bo is dismissed as Chongqing party chief. He retains a seat on the Politburo, however. He disappears into the hands of investigators.
March 26: News that the Foreign Office has asked China to reinvestigate Mr Heywood’s death is revealed by the Wall Street Journal.
April 10: Bo is suspended from the Central Committee and the Politburo and is put under formal investigation for “serious breaches” of discipline. His wife is named as the prime suspect in Mr Heywood’s murder.
August 20: Gu Kailai is given a suspended death sentence for murdering Neil Heywood after a one-day trial.
September 19: It is revealed for the first time, on Xinhua, that Bo knew of his wife’s role in the murder as early as January 28.
September 24: Wang Lijun is sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in covering up the murder, but repeatedly praised for “exposing clues of major crimes by others”
28 September: Bo Xilai is expelled from the Communist Party, and will face justice, according to state news agency Xinhua.
26 October: Bo Xilai is expelled from parliament – removing his immunity from prosecution. The media speculation begins…
Bo’s court case has been described by observers as the ‘trial of the century’, although this hype may be overblown, since we have had the ‘Gang of Four’ cases, and importantly the PRC is only 63 years old. It may be premature to class it in this way, since this century, we have had the ‘My Dad is Lee Gang’, and the Liu Xiabo trials. However, commentators and the people of china wait with bated breath to witness its process and outcome.
His trial, in the past week, has produced a huge range of speculation of what his charges will be and when will it be, with many giving a start date of March. The English-language tabloid the Global Times, which is published by the party’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily – said the trial “is expected to open after the ‘two sessions’ in March”, sourcing the claim to someone close to the country’s “top judicial body”.
The uncertainty over Bo Xilai’s impending trial has fuelled comments from scholars such as Carl F. Minzer, on the lack of transparency within the Communist leadership. Chinese political scholar, Liu Junning, asserted on his weibo microblogging account that “a great nation such as China and we can’t find a more trustworthy source than rumours”. A common occurrence in many different areas in China.
There are, of course, many underlying questions. How did Bo Xilai’s son afford to go to top-dollar British and American universities? Was there extra-judicial power used in the crackdown on organised crime? What role did Neil Haywood have to play in Bo Xilai’s regime? All this, and then the Wang Lijun incident – what exactly was being hidden by Bo Xilai’s inner circle? This question, presumably, will be answered through the course of his ‘trial’ – even if not to the public ears, however this is unlikely due to the secretive nature of the Chinese government.
The fallout from Bo’s case is serious. With the start of the trial, more details will be made known to the public. For now, it should serve as a warning that China must beware of careerist politicians making use of people’s discontent for their own gain, undermining reform efforts and the rule of law in the process (Norman P. Ho: 2012). Thirty years of reform and opening up has brought China tremendous success, but also created many problems in society. Its people are desperate for solutions. Chinese leaders should heed the call for change and deepen their reform efforts.
Bo Xilai’s case has grabbed global attention and exposes a deep-seated rift between to top echelons of the Communist party. Bo has not been seen in public since last March and state run media has revealed little about what charges he might face.The case reveals the ending of a period of remarkable political stability, which although tainted by occurrences of corruption, has remained a strong foundation for the Chinese government. Politics will now be very important and how the new leadership under Xi Jinping deals with politics will be exciting to see.
Outside, the expected court room in Guiyang this week, the public support was evident to see “Party secretary Bo: corrupt politicians envy and hate you, the people love you,” said a red banner unfurled in front of the building. Despite opposition in the government, his supporters are some the people, which illustrates another conflict to the Bo Xilai saga. The Bo Xilai trial, when it finally unfolds, will be sure to attract significant media attention from around the world. Yet unlike with the Gang of Four trial, the Chinese government will do little to publicize the proceedings. If Chinese judicial history is any indication, the trial will be speedy and decisive, an expeditious execution of “justice” that will fit neatly into China’s current legal norms. For a “trial of the century”, it is sure to disappoint. And that, in China, is precisely the idea.
Norman P. Ho ‘Organized Crime in China: The Chongqing Crackdown’ in John Garrick, ed, Law and Policy for China’s Market Socialism (Routledge, Oxford: 2012) pp. 206-213.
Carl F. Minzer ‘China at the Tipping point? The Turn Against Legal Reform’ (2013) Journal of Democracy, Volume 24, Number 1, 65-72.
‘Bo Xilai scandal: Timeline’
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-17673505 – 26 October 2012 [Accessed 3 February 2013].
‘Bo Xilai timeline: from Communist powerbroker to corruption charges’ – 28 September 2012 [Accessed 3 February 2013].
‘Rumours swirl around Bo Xilai trial’
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-21227101 – 28 January 2013 – [Accessed 3 February 2013].
‘Bo Xilai corruption trial not likely until after March, reports say’
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jan/28/bo-xilai-trial-after-march – 28 January 2013 – [Accessed 4 February 2013].
‘Top China Leader Faces Trial’
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444712904578023884222854230.html – 28 September 2012 – [Accessed 3 February 2013].
‘Dead end trail to Bo trial in China’s south’
‘China to Hit Bo Hard, Official Signals’
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323539804578261453715554418.html – 25 January 2013 – [Accessed 4 February 2013].
‘China’s ‘Trial of the Century’ Will Be a Dud—and That’s the Point’
http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/02/chinas-trial-of-the-century-will-be-a-dud-and-thats-the-point/272973/ – 7 February 2013 [Accessed 7 February 2013].
For a more in depth analysis, please check out a fascinating Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ documentary entitled ‘Chinese Murder Mystery’ available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iwNSJ_IG1c. Or for a brief analysis, watch the Wall Street Journal Documentary on the scandal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqaQcOS7juU.