From Maoist Criminal to Popular Hero?
By PIN HO
ANY day now — the authorities won’t say precisely when — China will begin one of the most sensational trials in its modern political history, when Bo Xilai, the former rising star in the Politburo and Communist Party boss in the megacity of Chongqing, faces corruption charges.
Officials hope the proceedings — a highly choreographed court drama, in front of a carefully selected audience — will put an end to the party’s most embarrassing political scandal in decades. But even if the trial goes as planned, Mr. Bo could end up an unlikely hero.
Most Chinese know that the alleged bribes are but a pittance when measured against the breathtaking scale of official graft in China. Mr. Bo’s real offense was political: his leftist, populist style challenged the party’s carefully orchestrated, consensus-based succession plans.
Mr. Bo’s fall from grace last year threatened to overshadow the party’s once-a-decade leadership transfer. It was the most dramatic ouster of a Chinese leader since the former premier Zhao Ziyang was removed for being too soft on the Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989.
Unlike Mr. Zhao, who faced only internal sanctions and was confined to his home until his death in 2005, Mr. Bo was expelled from the party and criminally charged. If he accepts a deal with party leaders, he is likely to get a prison term of 15 to 20 years, long enough to destroy his chance of a comeback. But if the unpredictable Mr. Bo defies the court, as Jiang Qing, the widow of Mao Zedong, did in 1980, it could greatly embarrass party leaders, who might order the court to give Mr. Bo a suspended death sentence, tantamount to life in prison.
Mr. Bo’s epic fall is unique among the “princelings,” the children of the revolutionary generation who established the People’s Republic in 1949, many of whom have amassed enormous riches. He is accused of accepting around $3.3 million in bribes, embezzling $1 million and misusing his authority. Mr. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence last August for murdering a British businessman (though evidence of her guilt remains murky). Their son, Bo Guagua, recently enrolled at Columbia Law School, which some observers see as a sign that Mr. Bo has reached a deal with President Xi Jinping, one that would allow the son to stay abroad and to preserve some of the Bo family’s overseas assets, which apparently include a villa in Cannes, on the French Riviera.
But the pretrial proceedings have dragged on for nearly a year, a sign that airbrushing Mr. Bo out of the picture is proving more difficult than anticipated. Mr. Bo’s allies and foes are deeply intertwined. Even the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee — which is led by President Xi and which Mr. Bo once hoped to join — cannot easily move against Mr. Bo’s formidable, though weakened, allies.
Most Chinese know that Mr. Bo, with his flamboyant egotism, was no angel. Under his crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing, opponents were imprisoned, tortured and executed, or lost their jobs and assets without due process of law. But they also believe that those who brought him down may be even more corrupt or despicable.
A lengthy prison term might turn Mr. Bo from a grasping regional politician into a national symbol, or even a martyr. At a time of rampant corruption and social injustice, many see him as a charismatic leftist who at least dared to challenge the status quo of organized crime and official self-dealing and to revive Mao’s socialist, egalitarian ideals. The appearance of pro-Bo imagesalongside Mao portraits at anti-Japan nationalist demonstrations last September and the arrest on Monday of a Chinese reporter who had urged people to protest the forthcoming trial are signs of this mood.
Predictions that the charges against Mr. Bo would deal a death blow to the revival of Maoist ideology haven’t come to pass. If anything, since the party’s 18th National Congress last fall, some leaders, alarmed by rising unrest and a slowing economy, have promoted Maoist campaigns similar to Mr. Bo’s.
Under Deng Xiaoping, who engineered China’s economic transformation, the party tried to reduce the emphasis on personality. Since his death in 1997, it has smoothly orchestrated three leadership transfers — to Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and now Mr. Xi — based on supposedly meritocratic criteria.
But the process is not governed by open and fair rules. Appointments are made by a few party strongmen and elders in back rooms. The Communist Party elite relies for advancement on family or personal connections, character assassination, persecution and, as we have seen, even murder. Mr. Bo played the game for the highest stakes, and he lost. Just as succession-related conspiracies were common in imperial China, so the Communist dictatorship has become a kleptocratic monarchy in all but name.
After the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death, in 1976, his widow, Ms. Jiang, the leader of the leftist Gang of Four, famously said at her trial: “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. Whomever he asked me to bite, I bit.” It didn’t save her from prison — ailing, she killed herself in 1991, while under house arrest — but it exposed the hollowness of the effort to pin a nation’s crimes on a few bad apples. In a country that still rejects anything approaching democratic participation, Mr. Bo’s trial could have the same effect.
Pin Ho is a journalist and co-author of “A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money, and an Epic Power Struggle in China.” This essay was translated by his co-author, Wenguang Huang, from the Chinese.