The corruption trial of fallen Chinese politician Bo Xilai, which wrapped up this week, was full of soap operatic elements – unrequited love, mistresses, large sums of cash traded for political favors, and even Mr. Bo smacking his former police chief across the face.
Yet amid all the sordid detail, unrolled in apparently censored but lengthy transcripts posted online via the Jinan court’s social media feed, one voice was missing: that of the victims of government corruption so endemic in China.
Experts say it’s an effort to distance the corruption case from a Chinese public already deeply cynical about the issue.
“Bribery and corruption actually are a betrayal of the public interest, which can cause public debt, state-owned property losses, damage to the government’s credibility, and other things,” says Mao Zhaohui, director of Renmin University’s research center on government corruption.
As Chongqing Communist Party boss, Bo, an ambitious political scion, fell from power after his police chief disclosed to US officials that Bo’s wife had murdered a British business associate more than two years ago. Yet the crimes for which Bo was tried last week reach back to his ties of more than a decade ago, when he served as mayor of the port city of Dalian. Besides being accused of helping cover up his wife’s crime, Bo was tried for accepting bribes and embezzling money from two Dalian businessmen, to the tune of 21.8 million yuan (about $3.5 million).
Who, exactly, lost out in those deals went largely undisclosed in the trial transcripts and most of China’s media. The case did not elaborate precisely why plastics mogul Xu Ming and developer Tang Xiaolin bribed Bo, nor what the politician might have done in exchange for cash, a French villa for his wife, and private African adventure for his son.
There were broad statements about the damage wrought by Bo’s alleged crimes, but no declarations from people or companies harmed in the process. The court is now deliberating a verdict and sentence for Bo, though many observers believe a deal on his fate was negotiated in advance.
“Bo abused his power, causing major losses to the interests of the state and people. The circumstances are especially serious, according to the indictment,” the Xinhua news agency wrote in its synopsis.
Still, no victims were called to testify against Bo to explain what they had lost or how they might have suffered under his political tenure in either Dalian or Chongqing. Instead, the trial focused on the testimony of the two businessmen describing the bribes and gifts they gave Bo and his family, backed up by statements from Bo’s wife Gu Kailai. The former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun testified that Bo helped conceal the murder of Briton Neil Heywood, but did not discuss other allegations of abuse or misdeeds in Chongqing.
So why was the case against Bo so carefully painted as a series of victimless crimes?
Chinese political experts say the corruption charges against Bo are, in part, an effort to shore up government credibility in the eyes of the people.
“The main victim of such crimes is the state,” says Mr. Mao.
Yet that’s not the case for the millions of Chinese people who have lost homes and property to corrupt development deals, or to businesses that have lost out to others that better curried favor with officials. These stories are easy to find, even in Dalian, where Bo remains something of a local hero for having transformed the city into a beautiful seaside showpiece.
A Dalian company that attempted to sue Xu Ming’s firm over corruption charges isn’t talking about its case. Those with little to lose, the ordinary people of China who have fallen on the wrong side of corruption, are more open about their stories and maintain the issue is not just about the party’s image.
Dalian teacher Zhang Ming has appealed to the local government repeatedly after a fight with her school left her without years of salary and lacking her household registration documents, necessary for every aspect of life in China. Though her case had nothing to do with Bo specifically, she said it taught her how corruption permeates every aspect of China.
“Corruption always comes to bear on ordinary people like me,” she says. “People like me suffer a lot from corrupt government and officials.”