The penny has dropped for Bo Xilai. The one-time Chongqing Party Secretary, held in limbo since March 2012, was indicted today for bribery, corruption, and abuse of power stemming from his previous stint as the top official in Dalian. Bo's long-awaited trial will mark the culmination of China's most serious political scandal in a generation, one that began with the poisoning death of British businessman Neil Heywood in Chongqing in November 2011.
To tease out some of the implications of the Bo Xilai issue, I spoke to Jacques DeLisle, a law professor and Director at the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The following is a transcript of our remarks, edited for length and clarity.
Now that Bo Xilai has been indicted, when will his trial be held?
There's been a lot of speculation about that already, and of course nobody knows for sure. But I suspect the trial won't be too far into the future because the government has sat on this issue for so long. It's hard to imagine what the motivation would be for indicting him and then letting the indictment sit for a long time.
Another reason that the trial will likely happen sooner rather than later is the arrival of two major events on the Chinese political calendar. The first is the traditional summer retreat of the Communist Party elite to Beidaihe, a beach resort near Beijing, where the country's top leaders go to set the agenda for the coming year. The second is the coming third plenum of the National People's Congress early this fall, an event where policies will be set. This time, the third plenum will be particularly important because it comes after the installation of a new president [Xi Jinping], something that happens in China only once every 10 years.
So is there any chance that Bo will be acquitted?
(Laughs) You'd have to get really, really big odds to cover that bet. If he were acquitted it'd be shocking -- totally out of the ordinary. But what's interesting to me is what they're charging him with.
Why is that?
Well, the main focus of the Bo Xilai controversy was what he did in his last post as the Party Secretary of Chongqing, including the unpardonable sin of campaigning publicly for a spot in the Standing Committee of the Politburo [China's highes decision-making body]. China has a fairly secretive and managed successor process, but Bo tried to subvert this by invoking his own personal standing and his ability to cultivate grass-roots support. That was a huge infraction on his part.
If you look more broadly at what the public saw in Bo, you see someone who ran a brutal dictatorship in Chongqing. There was some genuine support for his anti-crime crackdown, of course, but its brutality, and disregard of legal restrictions and procedures, were problematic. Bo tried to shake down local business interests in the city, and angered China's "rule of law" types by going after a defense lawyer named Li Zhuang, who was defending someone caught up in one of Bo's "anti-mafia" cases.
But the indictment, insofar as we know, just has to do with the crimes of embezzlement and abuse of power that focused on his earlier tenure as the Party Secretary of Dalian, in northeastern China, and has nothing to do with what he did in Chongqing.
Why would Beijing handle it this way? Why not go after him for his Chongqing crimes, and, if his Dalian crimes merited arrest, why didn't they arrest him years ago?
Almost every official at Bo's level in China has skeletons in the closet, so if they had gone after him when he was running Dalian -- his crimes there were not uncommon for Chinese leaders -- then you'd give the impression that members of the elite would be vulnerable to criminal prosecution.
So had the Wang Lijun incident [the Police Chief who fled to the U.S. Embassy in February 2012] not occurred in Chongqing, would Bo have even run into trouble?
The Wang Lijun case made it easy to go after Bo; there's something terribly embarrassing when your top aide tries to defect to the United States and then hands over a bunch of information in the process. And there were other revelations that hurt him, such as tapping the phones of [former President] Hu Jintao when he was visiting Chongqing.
But in general, Bo was playing a high-stakes, high-risk game. He was going outside the usual channels in a bid for higher office by cultivating a populist power base, and that's just a big no-no in Chinese politics. He also stood for a particular model of governance that was at odds with the broadly reformist bloc that runs the country. Bo's vision of Chongqing was in having the state play a big role and to avoid any big market reforms, and he was a good deal more contemptuous and dismissive of "rule of law" values than even the mainstream elite -- which is saying something. His populist, almost neo-Maoist approach was in tension with the reformist, market-oriented model favored by the likes of [former Guangdong Party Chief and current Vice Premier] Wang Yang.
Bo Xilai attracted genuine grassroots support as Chongqing's boss. Will they come out to rally during his trial?
A few years ago this would have been totally unthinkable in China, but with the rise in protests recently people do seem to feel more free to take to the streets. That said, most of the protesters seem more concerned with local economic or environmental issues than anything broadly political.
So will we see a lot of people out in the streets for Bo Xilai? I doubt it. It'd be a risky thing to do, I think, going out and expressing support for someone accused of doing some pretty terrible things. But what's interesting in this: the trial is being held not in Chongqing or Dalian but in Jinan, capital of Shandong Province, which is an area with which Bo has no ties. This might suggest some concern to avoid some embarrassing, if not actually threatening, protests.
What will Bo's sentence be?
I'd guess it'll be somewhere been many years and a suspended death sentence, the latter of which in China usually means life in prison. The odds of him being executed is practically nil -- it just doesn't happen to top leaders in China, not to [Mao Zedong's last wife and Gang of Four member] Jiang Qing, nor people nearer to Bo like his wife Gu Kailai, who was convicted in the murder of Neil Heywood. Chen Liangyu, the Shanghai Party Chief convicted for corruption in 2008, is probably the closest comparison, and he didn't even get a suspended death sentence.
What lesson does Bo's case teach existing Chinese officials?
I don't think it teaches them anything they don't already know. That is to say -- if you engage in corrupt or abusive behavior in these high positions (Party secretary, provincial governor, etc.) you might end up with your political enemies wanting to take your down. Lots of people of course get away with a lot of stuff -- but even for people like Bo in the upper tier of elite, there is that risk of getting caught.