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.
Alas, the Party's handling of Bo's case shows that this shift is far from complete. For one, the deliberate pace of the proceedings does not inspire confidence. From
the time Bo was dismissed as Party chief in Chongqing, rumors of factional infighting over his punishment have overshadowed news of legal developments,
gaining more significance as over a year elapsed between his expulsion from the Party and the onset of the trial. By drawing out what should have been a
shorter legal process, the Party has allowed too many external factors to weaken the legitimacy of the legal outcome.
All is not lost, however: Beijing can still use the judicial process to silence Bo's powerful supporters. And it should. Everybody expects (and wants) a
guilty verdict for Bo, so letting in procedural uncertainty would not alter the outcome. Bo's opponents in the Party have already won; what's far more
important at this stage is that they persuade his supporters to accept the victory as fair. Whether the Party manages this aspect will tell us how well it
can integrate law into its political life.