On July 25, Xinhua, China's official news agency, finally announced news that the country had waited over a year to hear: "Bo Xilai was indicted Thursday in Jinan, Shandong Province, for bribery, corruption and abuse of power." With that, the Chinese Communist Party initiated the prosecution of the former Party Secretary of Chongqing, a man who had ambitions to lead China before his spectacular fall from grace last March.
In anticipation of Bo's trial this month, observers have focused on two main angles: the significance of the trial for President Xi Jinping's fight against corruption in the Party, and the fortunes of political factions that fought for months over Bo's fate. The assumption is that, in China, politics and law are inseparable, and that, "trial of the century" hype aside, if there is a chance for Xi Jinping to implement the rule of law, Bo's trial would not provide it.
Not so fast. Despite the strong political undercurrent, this trial is actually a singular opportunity for the Communist Party to demonstrate a previously absent understanding of the rule of law. Not for nothing did the People's Daily, the Party's newspaper, proclaim in a front-page editorial the day after the indictment that "China is a socialist country ruled by law that will not trample on dignity and authority." Other official media across the country dutifully echoed the idea that the trial needed to and would show that no one is above the law in China.
Breaking with its thin legal tradition, the Party is showing a subtle but hugely consequential shift in its mindset towards the "rule of law". Traditionally, the government, and most Chinese people, think of the law as simply a means to codify the right and just outcome. Bo Xilai, for one, freely disregarded legal protections in his ruthless campaign against Chongqing's gangs and his political enemies. For that, many Chinese people still regard him as a great man of action.
In the Chinese legal tradition, insisting on correct procedure was considered a tactic used only by the guilty. Arguing the letter of the law suggested subversive intent. But these days are over: the bulk of Xinhua's announcement carefully walked through the legal process that Bo had undergone leading up to the indictment, including the role of the various judicial organs that had reviewed the case. Importantly, it also stated that Bo had "been informed of his legal rights and interviewed by prosecutors. His defending counsel [had] delivered its opinion."
The immediate response is, of course, that the legal showmanship, though novel, is really just a sham. In the sense that the verdict was determined far in advance by political deal making, then yes: the whole exercise is meaningless. But if the Chinese government now views the law as something to be navigated and not simply ignored, then it has already overcome a significant ideological obstacle. Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law who secured a place at NYU for dissident Chen Guangcheng, mused that Party leaders would think of Bo's trial in the following terms: "Should it be extensive and televised like that of the Gang of Four, or truncated and regimented like that of [Bo Xilai's wife] Gu Kailai?" Both the henchmen of the Cultural Revolution and Gu were afforded nothing more than a show trial. But for Bo, the Party has conceded that state action must find a justification in the framework of law. Ironically, then, one of China's staunchest opponents of the rule of law has helped lay its foundation.