Global Viewpoint

Bo Xilai trial was a satire, but still helped to further rule of law in China

In an interview, He Weifang, one of China’s most pre-eminent advocates of the rule of law and judicial independence, says the trial of former politburo member Bo Xilai was a satire – but it still helped to advance rule of law in China.

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    Bo Xilai stands on trial at the court in eastern China's Shandong province Aug. 22.
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He Weifang, a professor of law at Peking University, is one of China’s most pre-eminent advocates of the rule of law and judicial independence. He gave this interview to the Global Viewpoint Network as the Bo Xilai trial concluded on Monday, Aug. 26. 

GLOBAL VIEWPOINT: You once fought organized crime in Chongqing [where Bo Xilai was Community Party chief] and wrote “An Open Letter to the Legal Field in Chongqing” at a time when the administration of justice was entirely reduced to a tool for persecution. Now, the mastermind behind the scenes of the incidents in Chongqing’s crackdown, Bo Xilai, is on trial. Do you feel that this counts as justice being upheld?

HE WEIFANG: In the several years of the so-called “crackdown on crime,” Chongqing’s authorities definitely instigated many activities that trampled on the rule of law, deprived the people of their wealth, and extracted forced confessions on a large scale. From Chongqing’s official media reports at that time, Bo Xilai was the guiding force behind this wave of activities. That is to say, he was the person who was chiefly responsible for the many false and unjust cases that occurred in Chongqing.

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In this trial, if the prosecution had also pursued suspected criminal activities by the defendant, including abuse of power and obstruction of justice while in Chongqing in addition to the cover-up of a homicide by Gu Kailai [Bo's second wife], then this case would have even greater significance. It could even open a door for overturning those cases of injustice in Chongqing.

During the trial of this case, Bo Xilai presented his own defense in court during the argument phase by saying, “In speaking my mind in court, I hope that the public prosecutor does not take this for a malicious act or a withdrawal of my confession. To prevent wrongful convictions, China established a system of mutual restraint among public security agencies, prosecutorial entities, and the courts. In particular, defense counsel is included in the system of mutual restraint between prosecutorial entities and the courts in order to prevent wrongful convictions. A huge number of wrongful convictions would result if only the prosecutorial entities’ one-sided arguments are heard.”

He can actually describe the reasoning for this law clearly and rationally at a time when he himself has become the accused. Is this a satire? 

GLOBAL VIEWPOINT: It appears that the court’s trial against Bo Xilai over these past few days has generally proceeded in strict accordance with legal procedures. Do you think this is an improvement? Or do you feel there are still shortcomings?

HE WEIFANG: It is heartening that “an eye for an eye” does not exist in the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court, which has displayed very good neutrality. From the court’s official Weibo [Chinese microblogging site] postings of the trial’s procedures, the public prosecutor and defense counsel have been very professional, and in particular, the defendant’s right to speak in his own defense has been protected to a considerable degree. Although there are still obvious restrictions on the freedom of the public and the media to attend the trial, the most surprising fact was that the court displayed the general circumstances of the hearing via Weibo.

The number of characters and the duration of the hearing show that there has been some screening, but it seems that most of the utterances in court have been published. This is unprecedented in terms of similar cases. Of course, it won’t have been the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court’s own decision to be this open. We currently cannot determine where the authority for this decision came from and what its original intent was.

There are still some drawbacks to the hearing in terms of not being able to be present in the court in person, and only observing the hearing from the information posted to Weibo by the court. We already mentioned that the scope of crimes indicted by the Procuratorate of Jinan was constrained by the Commission for Discipline Inspection. This scope of prosecution and trial was not demarcated from strict legal criteria. This is the first drawback.

Second, the public prosecutor and the collegiate bench judges have not been able to indict and prosecute entirely in strict accordance with purely legal criteria, so when circumstances and issues arose during the court’s depositions and arguments that should have been caught, the judges and public prosecutor did not investigate them thoroughly.

The most obvious example occurred on the second day of the trial. The lawyer said, “Wang Lijun’s [police chief of Chongqing under Bo] testimony gave the sense that Kailai’s case of November 15th occurred because of the house in Nice and Neil [Heywood]’s threats, but in reality, this was not what happened. Neil had sent Bo Guagua a letter demanding 14 million pounds as a commission on a project. This was unrelated to the house in Nice.”

This is a tremendously important clue that may involve the Bo family’s other [alleged] financial crimes – what kind of a transaction could generate such an enormous amount in commission! – and may even involve the true motives behind Gu Kailai’s murder of Neil Heywood [British businessman]. It needed to be thoroughly investigated, but unfortunately, the public prosecutor let it pass.

Also, in the final stage of arguments, Bo Xilai explained that he had hit Wang Lijun – a slap or a punch – because of an improper relationship between Wang and Gu Kailai. Obviously, the court needs to expose exactly what relationship existed between them. If there was an improper relationship, how long did it last, and what kinds of business transactions occurred during that time? This may also be related [to] what actually transpired for Gu Kailai to have killed Neil Heywood. The court also did not pursue this.

Third, in this trial, Wang Lijun and several other witnesses went to the court in person to give testimony and were subjected to face-to-face questioning by the accused and his attorney. Compared to the Hefei trial of Gu Kailai and the Chengdu trial of Wang Lijun, this was a major bright point in the Jinan trial.

There were still some flaws, however. For example, most of the witnesses who should have appeared in court did not appear, and all of the witnesses who appeared in court have been witnesses for the prosecution.

Not one witness for the defense has appeared, and none of the written evidence laid out in court has been favorable to the accused.

We have cause to ask this: Before the trial, did the lawyers proceed with broad collection of evidence? Also, Bo Xilai clearly said in court that he twice applied for Gu Kailai to testify in court, but this was denied by the presiding judge because Article 188 of the Criminal Procedural Law stipulates that relatives cannot be forced to testify in court.

Only a video of Gu’s testimony was broadcast on site. However, the legal right protected by this regulation is the value of the ethical relationship between relatives. Since Gu had already agreed to testify via video, whether or not to appear in court was only a technical difference. Besides, the outcome of her not appearing in court was that there was no way to repeatedly confront the many things that touched upon the guilt or innocence of the accused.

Fourth, compared to the complexity of circumstances involved in this case, the duration of the entire trial is still too brief.

GLOBAL VIEWPOINT: As the most renowned legal scholar in China, do you think that Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun’s trials symbolize the turning of a dark page in China’s history of administration of justice?

HE WEIFANG: The occurrence of the Chongqing incident last year was already a major event in the trend of China’s rule of law. The miscarriages of justice caused by the Chongqing crackdown on crime should be investigated. But although this trial has avoided doing so, at least Bo has been placed in the dock of the accused. His calls to request impartial proceedings have more impact and persuasiveness than those from other people in general. 

GLOBAL VIEWPOINT: Do you think that the end to "Bo Xilai’s Chongqing Mode" will actually be significant as an example of the future of China’s rule of law? Or is this only a single case, and China’s rule of law will not see serious or profound improvements because of it?

HE WEIFANG: I can only say that after this trial, whether that whole “line, principle, and policy” convention associated with the Chongqing Model will be seriously reconsidered and be thoroughly overhauled is a specimen for testing the future of China’s rule of law and the trend in politics.

© 2013 Global Viewpoint Network, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

[Editor's Note: The original headline of this piece mis-characterized the interviewee's point.]

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