Chinese prosecutors formally charged disgraced political leader Bo Xilai with bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power on Thursday, setting the stage for the country’s biggest trial in nearly 40 years.
No date has been set for the hearing, which could open as early as next week, in Jinan, capital of the eastern province of Shandong. But the indictment, coming 16 months after Mr. Bo was detained, marks a bold step in the campaign against official corruption that new President Xi Jinping has made a cornerstone of his rule.
“This shows the current leadership is determined to send a message to senior cadres that no matter who you are … if you are guilty you can be tried,” says Huang Jing, a specialist in Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore.
But the trial will be a delicate affair; Bo has extensive connections throughout the ruling Communist Party and remains a popular figure, admired for his emphasis on social spending and nostalgic “Red Song” campaign, harking back to the days of Mao Zedong.
“This is a very, very difficult case,” says Cheng Li, an expert on the inner workings of China’s political leadership at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The country is very divided and public intellectuals are divided over how to deal with Bo Xilai.”
Bo, a charismatic and controversial politician, once aimed for the pinnacle of power in China as a member of the seven man Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo.
He was brought down in March 2012 when the former police chief in Chongqing, the city that Bo ran, sought asylum at a US consulate, bearing evidence that Bo had helped cover up the murder of a British businessman.
His wife, Gu Kailai, was found guilty of that murder in August and given a suspended death sentence. The police chief, Wang Lijun, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for initially covering up the murder and other crimes.
Bo “took advantage of his position to seek profits for others and accepted ‘an extremely large amount’ of money and properties,” according to the indictment, the state news agency Xinhua reported.
“He also embezzled a huge amount of public money and abused his power, seriously harming the interest of the state and people,” Xinhua quoted the indictment as saying.
Proceeding with caution
Bo is most unlikely to contest the charges and will probably be sentenced to life in prison after a summary hearing, according to legal experts, pointing to the precedents of earlier corruption trials of senior officials.
“This will be a political trial with the results pre-determined” by China’s political leadership, predicts Zhang Qianfan, a law professor at Peking University. “They merely have to lay the evidence before the public.”
Revealing too much evidence, however, might inflame public resentment against the Communist Party, whose legitimacy has been undermined by endemic corruption. Few Chinese citizens believe that Bo Xilai’s is an isolated case.
The fact that it has taken 16 months to lay public charges against Bo, who was expelled from the Communist Party in September, illustrates how cautiously the government has approached his case, and how politically sensitive it is.
“Bo Xilai is not just any party leader,” points out Professor Huang. As the “princeling” son of a revolutionary leader and figurehead for the Communist Party’s left wing “he is symbolic and has tight connections to different political and interest groups.”
His indictment, suggests Professor Zhang, “means that major power players in the party have reached agreement on how he should be tried,” and how his trial should be used.
That could mean that President Xi has agreed not to use Bo’s case as a trampoline from which to continue his anti-corruption campaign, which would challenge powerfully entrenched vested interests within the ruling party.
But a successful trial could strengthen Xi’s position and lend his anti-corruption campaign further impetus.
“The risk is that the trial may offend some powerful players, and it could backfire,” warns Zhang. “But if Xi handles it well it could lead to even further investigations.”
Should that happen, says Huang, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, “This trial will not be the beginning of the end” of the president’s anti-corruption drive, “it will be the end of the beginning.”