Wednesday, October 2, 2013

To the surprise of no one...

Bo Xilai was found guilty.

(Bo is over 6 ft. tall, so those are some very tall cops!)

For those unfamiliar, I wrote a little about Bo Xilai and his criminal case here and here. It truly is one of the most bizarre, Byzantine and fascinating political scandals of...maybe ever, but at least of the modern political era. I won't recap it again here (for one thing, I just got back from Bouchercon and a few post-Bouchercon events and...well, if you've been to Bouchercon, you'll understand! I need to sleep for about a week). But since my second post, a few more highlights of the trial were: Bo called his wife "crazy" (she's the one who supposedly murdered British businessman and fixer, Neil Heywood) and accused his once loyal righthand man, ex-police chief Wang Lijun, of having an affair with her. So, there's that.

What did surprise many observers was the severity of Bo's sentence -- life in prison, with the possibility of parole after a decade or so. Many had expected he'd get closer to 10 - 20 years, given his high "princeling" status. Also, the evidence presented in court was not terribly compelling--it was the sort of petty corruption that as one internet wag remarked, didn't even rise to the level of village headman. 

But there were many factors at work here. 

The first was the manner in which Bo proclaimed his ambitions before his downfall. While there might be some sympathy for his neo-Maoist politics (how deeply Bo believes in them is another question) Bo, with his American-style glad-handing, crowd-pleasing style, openly campaigned for high office. This. Isn't. Done. Decisions are made behind closed doors, and the battles are largely unseen. 

Another was the current regime's desire to prove to the Chinese people that they are serious about tackling corruption, that they are willing to take down as high profile a leader as Bo Xilai, the son of an "Immortal." This is problematic, because the public suspects that most if not all Chinese leaders are in some measure corrupt, and if they aren't corrupt, they are so privileged that the distinction really doesn't matter. In fact, much of Bo's popularity stemmed from his anti-corruption campaign in Chongqing, and I can't really say if his downfall increases peoples' cynicism that "they're all the same," or if it reinforces a belief that anyone who really takes on the system will be brought low. Probably both, depending on who you talk to.

Bo might have gotten a lighter sentence if he'd accepted his fate, admitted his guilt, thrown himself on the mercy of the court, but he did none of those things. He challenged the government's case every step of the way and loudly proclaimed his innocence. Now, he is appealing his verdict. How that will work out in a legal system largely designed to reinforce the Party's will is anyone's guess. 

But most observers agree that the government didn't do a very good job of presenting the case against Bo, that when it came to the charge of abusing his power, they weren't willing to dig very deeply at all. From all accounts, Bo's anti-corruption campaign was also a tool used to punish his political enemies and to extort money from businessmen who were not his allies. The abuse of power was very real and very deep. But the real facts of Bo's case too clearly illustrate the arbitrary nature of authority in China. And apparently the new leadership isn't ready to tackle that.

Lisa...Every Other Wednesday....


  1. The level of political arrogance in the world today is mind-boggling to me. Not just in China, a land of which I'm no more familiar than the NY Times and -- better still-- you make me aware, but in Greece, where Nazi Parliamentary thugs accused of murder and mayhem are boldly saying they can only be stopped with "bullets," to the US, where a band of baby-with-the -bathwater Congressional thugs are willing to bring down the country as long as it also harms those their ideology says they must despise.

    Thanks for getting my juices flowing again, Lisa.

  2. I think there's a lot more going on with Bo Xilai, and that politics are one of the issues of the bottom of it all. There is a lot of corruption among the leaders and administrators. Don't think Bo was any different in a practice that seems quite commonplace.

    I do think it has a lot to do with the different paths to economic development and historical differences on this by the leaders -- and that Bo was avowedly opposed to the majority of the leadership and wasn't afraid to "stand his ground."

    He did revive some Maoist slogans, songs and precepts in the city and region which he governed, where he was popular among many. But he came up against furious oppositon, and the bureaucracy looked for and found a way to root him out and try to root out his ideas.

    After all, he did try to build more subsidized housing for working and poor people, and was taking on the humongous real estate industry by doing this.

    There are many ways to deal with political opponents all over the world -- charges of corruption are used worldwide for this purpose, when the practice is often the usual way of carrying out daily life.

    My opinion is notwithstanding the knowledge and experience of the writer here, who has more insights into what's going on in China. But I say scratch beneath the surface and look at what the differences are really about.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Kathy. I largely agree with you, with the caveat that my "expertise" only goes so far!

      I think the corruption charges against Bo were pretty weak tea (as did, apparently, much of the Chinese public following the case). I think his political stance certainly played a role -- there have been factional struggles in the Chinese leadership along these lines since the revolution (well, and before, when it comes right down to it). The lines aren't always that clear-cut (Xi seems to be picking one from Column A and one from Column B from what I've read recently), and I wouldn't underestimate the role of personal rivalries here either.

      I do think that his out-and-out campaigning for high office was a real problem for the leadership--they're rather scared of someone with a large personal following who's not afraid to mobilize it in his pursuit of power, especially when you consider the growing public anger at the huge inequalities that exist in China today.

      Also, from what I know, I think that it's a mistake to look at Bo as a white knight, even though I too think it's admirable to try and provide housing for people who desperately need it. It's possible that this is spin, but his crackdown in Chongqing was supposedly as brutal and arbitrary as any other from the leadership, and that many of the victims were not corrupt criminals but instead were people who opposed him, got in his way or had something he wanted. Maybe that isn't the case and I'm misjudging the man, but the arguments are pretty persuasive that this was the case.

  3. Okay. I see this, and I'm sure personal rivalries exist, and I know that differences among the leadership about how to build China's economy and move forward have existed for decades.

    Yes, and I would say that the growing economic inequities that exist in China are something that the leadership wants to keep a lid on -- and that whoever stirs the pot and challenges the inequities and has a leadership position and a following -- is someone whom the leadership has to tone down and keep quiet -- and discredit.

    I get most of my information from the New York Times, although sometimes read articles with other sources, and that newspaper had reported on Bo's angering other leaders with his program and practice in Chongqing on housing and slogans and so on.

    And after Bo's arrest, I was surprised to see in that newspaper mentions of Bo's supporters within China, and within important bodies, and I think, the military.

    This sounded alarms for the leadership, I'm sure, which doesn't want the pot stirred about the inequities and any political opposition -- even given what you've said about personalities and power, etc.

    They don't want to be challenged or disagreed with. I do think they have to listen more to the demands of the population on the inequities' issues of people living in rural areas, migrant workers and others, as protests are growing.

    This is exciting to me: seeing where the protests go and if people can bring about changes in terms of wages, health care, housing and other social needs.

  4. I know less than either of you, Lisa and Kathy, but it seems that Bo has opened a peephole for the Chinese people. The powerful have put him away , for now. But now the cat is out of the bag that a charismatic leader who makes the right appeal can become a big spoon to stir the pot. I imagine others are positioning and preparing tthemselves as I type.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. A couple of things. The current Chinese leadership is very much aware of the societal strains stemming from inequality and privilege. It's one of the reasons that the development machine keeps steaming along, because if too many people are unemployed, these strains may reach a breaking point. This is what the War on Corruption is largely about, showing the people that they won't tolerate officials taking advantage of their privilege. Of course the corruption is impossible to root out, the families of the top leadership have by and large profited immensely from their position and there are no institutional rivals or an unfettered watchdog press to put any real checks on their power.

    I really think that Bo Xilai's unpardonable sin in the eyes of the current leadership was that he openly campaigned for high office. It threatened the hard-fought, behind the curtains consensus that has governed the succession process since Deng Xiaoping. His use of Maoist tropes suggested that he was willing to mobilize "the masses" to gain power, and that is a red-hot button for the leadership. They do not want to see a return to the violence and chaos of the Cultural Revolution period, but more to the point, they do not want to see a leadership selection process or the rise of a populist movement that's outside of their control.

  7. You raise very good points, Lisa.

    I may see some of this a bit differently, but I think the leadership was using the corruption issue because they know the people are opposed to it, even though it's quite commonplace, and some of those pointing the finger at Bo are subject to it, too. But the people are opposed to it.

    I think that it's true that Bo was campaigning for high office, and it threatened many leaders, but I think there was more substance to it, and some genuine differences. I do think that he believed what he was doing, and wasn't just using slogans and hot button issues, but that he genuine has differences with other officials. And that, on top of his ambition -- and yes, challenging the succession process -- he does genuine have disagreements that are political and economic.

    And, yes, I wholeheartedly agree that the leadership does not want to see the rise of a populist movement beyond their control. But, along with this, I'm sure they're dismayed at the rising anger about inequities, workers' issues, including those who are migrant workers, health care and other issues. And they want to keep a lid on all of it, and anyone who could unleash it.

    Well, it remains to be seen what happens, especially on the social and economic inequities, and what the leadership does about it.

  8. I agree with you about the corruption charges, Kathy -- I hope that was clear. Bo might be as corrupt as anyone but they didn't present evidence of that in court, and as I understand it, they didn't do a particularly credible job proving what they did present (which many observers characterized as relatively minor in any case).

    I agree with you that there are some real policy differences between different Chinese leadership factions. I hesitate to call them "Left" and "Right" because they don't really line up the way that we think of those terms. But, particularly with Xi seeming to try and walk a line between the two (I could be wrong about this, I'm not an expert, but his predecessor Hu Jintao also tried to address issues of inequality and uneven development), I don't think that's the great existential struggle going on here.

    I think that if Bo had played the game the way that is is generally played these days, he may not be on the Standing Committee, but he wouldn't be in prison. It was his willingness to go outside the accepted succession process and perhaps create a rival political power base that crossed a red line, IMO. It's the red line for nearly everything in China -- not what you think, not what you say, but what you do that could organize others into a rival political force.

    And yeah, I don't envy the leadership this challenge. If they can come to a consensus about what needs to be done, what remains to be seen, IMO, is whether they have the institutional capacity to do it.

  9. Always thought provoking responses here. I would say there are "left" and "right" factions within the leadership, but not defined as they are defined in the U.S. and Europe. And, even according to the press over here, Bo had support in "left" circles in China, and even in the military, which I think aggravated and frightened the main leadership. I mean, for them to see the pot stirred and some of the usually dormant "left" revived scared them -- and they wanted to put a lid on it and ostracize and isolate the person who was doing it -- whether he was 100% principled or not.

    Yes, I can see how his threat, perceived or real, to create a rival political power would cross the line.

    I do see, in all this, the positives that people are pushing back against the economic and social inequities, and the leadership has to respond. If they don't respond to mass pressure to solve some of these inequities, it's their doom.

  10. Here's a link to a 2012 NYT article that was a bit revealing:

  11. Here's another NYT article that brings up what I think the leadership is worried about, in addition to Bo's challenge to their power: