The trial of Bo Xilai and what it means for the rule of law in China

Author: Cheng Li, Brookings Institution

It is an outstanding result for the trajectory of political reform in China that the country’s leadership decided to put Bo Xilai through the public legal process rather than handle the matter internally.

The decision to publicly reveal some of the criminal conduct of this charismatic and demagogic Communist Party leader is a testament to unity among the Chinese leadership — not evidence of a split. In fact, this decision is an important step toward gaining public confidence in political reforms and the rule of law.

Even before Bo was dismissed as party chief of Chongqing, Premier Wen Jiabao said that the leadership should use legal processes to deal with the Wang Lijun case. This is a positive development in the Chinese leadership’s attitude to the rule of law. China’s legal profession has become an important interest group in Chinese society in the years since the Tiananmen protests. Two hundred thousand registered lawyers now have a voice and many of them are calling for improved rule of law and constitutionalism. This call has grown louder in the wake of the Bo Xilai crisis.

Some commentators have suggested that top leaders are divided along factional lines over whether to punish Bo Xilai with a criminal proceeding, but this view is mistaken. There is no denying that factional politics are influential in present-day China but overall, competing factions tend to agree on most issues. When party leaders face an embarrassing scandal and a major crisis in terms of the party’s legitimacy — and the Bo fiasco is an instance of this — they simply cannot afford to advance factional interests at the risk of a social uprising. Following the Bo scandal, the Chinese leadership is leaning toward unity and solidarity.

The Bo Xilai case is interestingly related to the difficulty of selecting leaders now that powerful figures like Mao and Deng are gone. The Chinese Communist Party needs to find a new mechanism to select its top leaders. All of Bo’s earlier activities were really directed at acquiring a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee or even higher because he sensed — perhaps earlier than others — that the old promotion game was over. But in trying something new Bo caused a lot of nervousness in some circles. This may be because he pursued this course prematurely or, perhaps more simply, because of his personality. Trying to change the game in terms of elite selection was perhaps the right thing to do, but Bo was the wrong person to do it.

This is important in the current climate of creeping political reform in the upper echelons of the Chinese leadership. There is much talk at the moment about selecting more high-level leaders through party elections involving ‘more delegates than seats’. If the communist leadership can hold such an intra-party election it will give the party a new source of legitimacy. Yet this strategy also involves risks that can only be offset through institutional reform.

A review of recent intellectual discourse in China reveals a heated discussion about the current risk of revolution in the country. In this context, conservative hardliners within the Communist Party leadership may ultimately decide to resist political reform at all costs. Some policy differences in the leadership — especially concerning political reform and personnel appointments — could become contentious and even cause factional infighting to spiral out of control. The new leadership may find it difficult to build the kind of consensus needed to govern effectively. The Bo trial may thus polarise Chinese society and enhance the risk of socio-political unrest rather than build momentum for legitimacy enhancing reforms.

The Bo Xilai case has revealed many of the flaws in the Chinese political system. It has also served as a wake-up call for the party: more systematic institutional measures are needed to deal with corruption, introduce intra-party democracy and demonstrate a real commitment to the rule of law. The leadership also needs to eventually allow for an open and independent media. The recent rumours about Xi Jinping’s absence underscore this necessity. The more the state restricts the media, the more sensationalist the rumour-mill becomes.

Bo Xilai will be the highest-ranking leader in the history of the People’s Republic of China  — besides Mao’s widow and other members of the so-called Gang of Four — to go through this kind of criminal trial. The charges against Bo are more severe than those faced by previous Politburo members accused of wrongdoing, among them Beijing party secretary Chen Xitong and Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu. Bo will likely receive somewhere between 20 years and a suspended death sentence, similar to what was given to his wife.

While Bo has been purged for his alleged crimes and his ‘violation of party rules’, until a more legitimate mechanism to select leaders is implemented, problems of leaders trying to get themselves promoted and running afoul of the party will likely continue to undermine the party leadership’s unity and ability to govern.

So was the Bo scandal beneficial or detrimental to the regime? Decisions by the central leadership currently reflect the need for damage control and improving the party’s image rather than a real consensus for the rule of law. Yet sometimes the development of the rule of law is not driven by the noble ideas of political leaders, but by practical necessity.

The party’s handling of Bo’s case gives hope that things are moving in the right direction. Time will tell whether this landmark trial can provide the Chinese Communist Party leadership with the confidence to pursue bold and genuine political reforms and provide the Chinese public with renewed confidence in a reborn ruling party.

Cheng Li is Director of Research and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center. His latest book is The Road to Zhongnanhai: High-level Leadership Groups on the Eve of the 18th Party Congress (2012, in Chinese). A version of this article was first published here as an interview with the US National Bureau of Asian Research’s Jonathan Walton.

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  • The rule of law in China means something very different from the Anglo-american legal system. In China, rule of law means rule by law as a political instrument rather than a protection of fundamental rights. Non-lawyers fail to understand this fundamental difference.

    • pmoulin

      Will Mr WEN Jiabao request his family and him to be processed and all his family assets blocked ? The same for other CPP leaders and their families? China is becoming a pure capitalist country with the new capitalist mainly tycoons and some leaders of CCP ( and families) in partnership with Western corporations… So as anticipated from many years ago destroying “socialist market economy” and China P.R. from inside with the full cooperation of USA …and the Brookings Institution … if Chinese People do not avoid it before.

  • Lincoln Fung

    The recent reports by western journals that Mr Wen’s extended family has over $2 billion in assets and that the murdered British man was a British spy do cast a significant shadow over the Bo corruption case. They do not suggest Bo was not corrupt, but they may cause people to think the disgrace of Bo may have had more to do with political struggles as opposed to a struggle between the corrupted and non-corrupted parts of the party.