Fallen Chinese Political Star to Be Tried Thursday

By Gillian Wong 19 August 2013

BEIJING — Disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai goes on trial Thursday on corruption charges in a case crafted to minimize damage to the Communist Party and avoid exposure of party infighting or human rights abuses.

Sunday’s announcement of a trial date for the former rising political star puts China’s new leaders on track to wrap up a festering scandal as they try to cement their authority.

The former party secretary of the major city of Chongqing fell from power last year in China’s messiest scandal in decades. It exposed the murder of a British businessman by Bo’s wife and a thwarted defection bid by his former police chief.

Bo will stand trial in the Intermediate People’s Court of the eastern city of Jinan on charges of taking bribes, embezzlement and abuse of power, said a one-sentence announcement on the court’s microblog account. The announcement was also carried by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Most trials in China last less than one day and Bo, 64, is almost certain to be convicted.

Bo’s downfall followed a failed defection attempt by his police chief at a US consulate, which embarrassed Chinese leaders. The chief exposed a litany of complaints against Bo that gave political rivals ammunition to attack him.

Bo, the son of a revolutionary leader, was a member of the party’s 25-member Politburo. But he alienated other party leaders by aggressively promoting his personal image and launched campaigns in Chongqing that invoked the radical era of the 1960s and ‘70s.

The charges against Bo appeared to be crafted to make him look like a rogue leader brought down by hubris and immorality. That would allow Chinese authorities to avoid questions about how the party’s unchecked power enabled Bo’s misconduct.

The court could avoid allegations of wiretapping conducted by his former top aide and the use of torture in an anti-crime crackdown. Judges could avoid asking about asset seizures from Chongqing entrepreneurs.

“These charges were tailor-made for Bo Xilai in view of the sentence that they want him to get,” said Zhang Lifan, a historian and political analyst in Beijing.

“They decided how long they wanted to have Bo Xilai locked up for, and then according to that sentence, they made the appropriate charges,” Zhang said. “But these charges have left out a lot of things that he is responsible for.”

Bo’s case was the last major unfinished business from the once-a-decade handover of power that began last November. Holding his trial now means the new leadership can wrap up the scandal before they head into a party meeting later this year that is meant to produce a blueprint for China’s economic development.

The outcomes of criminal cases against senior figures such as Bo are usually decided in advance in secret negotiations aimed at securing the defendant’s cooperation. Bo is only the third politician at Politburo level to be tried on graft charges in recent decades.

“When the indictment was finally announced, it meant that some sort of agreement was reached between the Politburo’s Central Committee and Bo Xilai,” said Zhang Sizhi, an eminent lawyer who has represented many defendants in high-profile political cases.

Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, received a suspended death sentence last year after confessing to poisoning a British businessman, Neil Heywood. Such sentences usually are converted to long prison terms if a convict is deemed to have repented.

The party also wants to present a spectacle of justice for the Chinese public and a warning to ambitious politicians not to defy the central leadership.

“They want to say “you have to obey the central leadership’,” said Dali Yang, head of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing. “It’s not simply about corruption. It’s also about central-local relations, about the need for senior local officials … to pay heed to the central government’s guidelines and not try to build independent kingdoms.”

Authorities are trying to minimize potential disruption during the trial.

Fang Hong, a Chongqing forestry official who was put in a labor camp for a year for criticizing Bo, was taken by police to a lodge in the mountains where he was told to stay until the trial is completed. Fang had said last month on a microblog that he wanted to attend the proceeding.

Song Yangbiao, a Beijing reporter in Beijing known as a supporter of Bo, was detained in early August after he posted a call online for people to protest outside the courthouse. A writer who uses the pen name Lu Qi and describes himself as a close friend of Song said the reporter was released on bail after about a week.

Official announcements about the charges against Bo have given no details.

But a person with direct knowledge of the case said Bo is accused of accepting bribes amounting to more than 20 million yuan ($3.3 million) and embezzling 5 million yuan ($820,000) while he was in a previous post in the eastern city of Dalian.

The abuse of power allegation is related to the cover-up of the murder by his wife in late 2011 and the defection attempt by his former police chief, Wang Lijun, said the person. He asked not to be identified further due to the case’s sensitivity.

Analysts say the charges underscore the party’s attempt to keep the scope of allegations against Bo limited in order to prevent his case from undermining confidence in party leaders or their political system.

“It’s almost like open heart surgery, or laser surgery,” said Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat in Beijing and head of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney. “You want to do the operation with as little collateral damage as possible.”

Questions that appear to have been left unaddressed include whether Bo should be held accountable for waging an anti-gang crackdown in Chongqing that ran roughshod over the legal system.

The crackdown resulted in 2,000 arrests, 500 prosecutions and 13 executions, including the former director of the city’s judicial bureau. Allegations of torture and shakedowns by law enforcement officials were common.

Bo also appears to have been spared some of the more serious accusations faced by his former police chief and right-hand man, Wang, including carrying out illegal surveillance.

Wang was convicted of putting people under electronic surveillance, which suggested he used bugging, wiretapping or computer monitoring. Websites abroad that follow Chinese politics said Wang was helping Bo gather information on other leaders.

Zhang, the veteran defense lawyer, said authorities appeared to be avoiding mentioning this charge even though Bo might be to blame in order to skirt larger questions about political factions and party infighting.

“There is no question that Wang Lijun was not acting on his own accord,” Zhang said, adding that acknowledging that would lead to too many uncomfortable questions.

“If they were wiretapping phones, whose phones were they tapping? Why do they want to eavesdrop?” Zhang said. “It would definitely involve many relationships and problems. And right now they are not willing to raise these questions and magnify the problem.”