China's 'Trial of the Century' Will Be a Dud—and That's the Point

What Bo Xilai's upcoming trial says about the evolution of China's legal system.


China's then-Commerce Minister Bo Xilai addresses a conference in 2005. Bo is expected to stand trial this year for his involvement in the murder of Neil Haywood in Chongqing, China. (Philippe Wojaze/Reuters)

Just over a year ago, the then-police chief of Chongqing, China, Wang Lijun, fled to the nearby city of Chengdu in a desperate attempt to defect to the United States. While he didn't succeed in escaping China, he did manage to unleash the country's biggest political scandal in decades; a titillating affair which led to the spectacular downfall of one of China's best-known and most ambitious political figures.

At the time of Wang's flight, Bo Xilai was the crusading Party Secretary of Chongqing and the architect of a populist revival that seemed poised to launch him into the Standing Committee of the Politburo, China's highest political office. Now Bo -- stripped of his position, his membership in the Communist Party, and his freedom -- awaits trial for his involvement in the murder of British businessman Neil Haywood, who perished after apparently being poisoned by Bo's wife.

As is typical in China's opaque criminal justice system, no one knows when or where Bo's trial will be held -- or even where Bo himself is waiting. This much, though, is certain: Bo's trial will be the most high-profile in China since The Gang of Four were convicted in 1981. And while the two trials may share a similar notoriety, the distinct circumstances around them encapsulate how much China has changed in the last three decades.

Little known outside China, the Gang of Four refers to the quartet of officials who assumed de facto control of the country during the chaotic Cultural Revolution. Following a decade of horror, stagnation, political upheavals, and mass persecutions -- all under the nominal leadership of an increasingly senile Chairman Mao - the four were arrested following Mao's death in 1976. Four years later, The Gang of Four were summoned to stand trial in front of a special tribunal in Beijing.

The trial was a spectacle from the start. Gang leader Jiang Qing - Mao's widow - proved to be a feisty defendant, as the NYU China legal expert Jerome A. Cohen, who watched the proceedings on television, recently remembered:

Jiang asked: "Can a defense lawyer take my place so I don't have to come to court?" When the court president said this would not be possible, Jiang snapped back: "Then I don't want one." Shortly thereafter, she had to be temporarily removed from the courtroom for obstreperous behavior, and the trial went downhill.

Ultimately, the Gang of Four were convicted of a range of crimes and subsequently imprisoned. All four have since died.

Though an outsized character not cast in the mold of the bland Chiense politician, Bo is unlikely to be as defiant as Jiang Qing. First, the Gang of Four trial was no ordinary proceeding; the Chinese government created a special tribunal to deal with the country's prior regime -- the very regime that had imprisoned its successor and had wrought tremendous damage across the entire country. The trial was televised because "it was a clear opportunity for the government to state, definitively, that the Cultural Revolution had ended, that this was a clear break from the past, and that the politicized struggle sessions had come to an end," says Professor Carl Minzer, an expert in Chinese legal history at Fordham University.

The Bo Xilai trial, on the other hand, is an affirmation of, rather than a repudiation of, the regime. Although Bo was a deeply driven individual who had great political ambition, he was at heart an establishment figure working from within the existing norms of the Communist Party. Professor Jacques deLisle, an expert in Chinese law at the University of Pennsylvania, summed up the differences between the two trials in this way: "The Gang of Four had run the show and were being replaced by their victims. Nobody thinks Bo wanted to actually run the show."

The Bo Xilai trial, when it finally unfolds, will be sure to attract significant media attention from around the world. Yet unlike with the Gang of Four trial, the Chinese government will do little to publicize the proceedings. If Chinese judicial history is any indication, the trial will be speedy and decisive, an expeditious execution of "justice" that will fit neatly into China's current legal norms. For a "trial of the century", it is sure to disappoint. And that, in China, is precisely the idea.