The Bo Xilai conviction, China's warning shot on the limits of populism: Patrick Brown

The seemingly well-publicized trial last month and conviction on the weekend of Chinese party princeling Bo Xilai were really about two things, Patrick Brown writes. First, muzzling, probably for good, a powerful Communist Party rival to the existing leadership and sending a message about the limits of populist politicking and internet campaigns.

Chinese princeling sentenced to life in prison for corruption

Disgraced former Communist Party strongman Bo Xilai stands in the Jinan Intermediate People's Court on Sunday, when he was convicted of corruption and sentenced to life in prison. (Jinan Intermediate People's Court / Associated Press)

Seen publicly wearing handcuffs for the first time, Bo Xilai stood for a courtroom photograph with two extra-large policemen towering over him a few minutes after being sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power.

For the fallen politburo member, the self-satisfied grin seen in many court pictures was reduced to the ghost of an enigmatic smile, a hint, perhaps, that he believes, even now, that he can make a comeback one day, just as his father once did.

Last week, just before the verdict, he wrote to his family, "I'll follow in his footsteps. I'll wait patiently in prison."

It is true that some Chinese politicians - including Bo's father, Bo Yibo, one of the founding fathers of the People's Republic, and Deng Xiaoping, who went on to become paramount leader - returned dramatically to office after years in disgrace. But it is impossible to imagine a set of circumstances cataclysmic enough to result in Bo Xilai doing the same.

It is true that some Chinese politicians returned dramatically to office after years in disgrace. But it is impossible to imagine a set of circumstances cataclysmic enough to result in Bo Xilai doing the same.

Twenty years ago, I went to the coastal city of Dalian to make a television profile of a man who seemed to be a new brand of politician in the age of China's massive economic reform. Then-mayor Bo Xilai was energetically trying to transform a fading provincial town into a mini-Singapore.

I spent time with him during an international fashion festival he had created, and watched him parading through the city in an open-topped limousine waving to the crowds.

Always wary of making predictions about China, I didn't report anything at the time that I can now smugly claim to be far-sighted. But I did note that, with his glad-handing, elegant suit and sharp haircut, Bo Xilai looked more like a campaigning American populist than a municipal official in a country that knew nothing of real campaigns and elections.

Aiming for the pinnacle

With hindsight, it is easy to see that in Dalian, as well as in his later jobs as governor of Liaoning province, commerce minister and party secretary of Chongqing, Bo really was campaigning for something all along: a seat in the inner sanctum of Chinese politics, the Politburo Standing Committee, and eventually, perhaps, even the very top job.

There is also little doubt that the man who actually did get that top job just under a year ago, President Xi Jinping, signed off on Bo's life sentence.

Moreover, the trial, verdict and sentence were endorsed not only by members of the current Politburo Standing Committee, but also by influential former leaders.

Chief Judge Wang Xuguang reads the verdict, sentencing Bo Xilai to life in prison, on Sept. 22. (Jinan Intermediate People's Court / Associated Press)

The establishment, in fact, began closing ranks against Bo back in 2007, when he was denied a plum job in the capital, which could have been a springboard to the next level, and sent off to run Chongqing, a western metropolis with province-level status.

As the once-in-a-decade leadership transition approached, Bo's relentless self-promotion, populist campaigns and naked ambition were already causing anxiety in a party that is obsessed with stability. The last straw came in February last year when Chongqing's eccentric police chief, Wang Lijun, fell out with his boss and sought refuge at the nearest U.S. consulate in Chengdu.

Refused asylum, partly because of serious human-rights abuses committed during Bo's crime-busting campaigns against local mafia, Wang surrendered to security officials from Beijing, and the skeletons began to tumble out of Bo's closet.

Wang revealed that he had covered up evidence that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who was involved in the tangled finances of Bo, his wife, and their son, Bo Guagua, who was already notorious in China for his profligate lifestyle at expensive schools and universities in Britain and America.

Not about openness

It is significant that the central government made little attempt to keep the lid on the scandal as it unravelled. Bo was quickly dismissed and, slowly but surely, he and his wife were arrested, charged, tried and given more severe sentences than many expected.

In the process, President Xi has neatly disposed of a potentially troublesome political force, and made a show of keeping a promise to punish "tigers as well as flies" — corrupt officials great and small.

As this morning's Peoples' Daily editorial puts it, "The resolute legal punishment of Bo Xilai fully demonstrates that there are no exceptions before party discipline and state law. No matter who is involved, they will all be investigated to the end and will all be punished."

Still, the charges against Bo were very carefully framed to focus on relatively modest ill-gotten gains. Fortunes in the hundreds of millions of dollars are commonplace among China's leading political families. But the Bos' trials were meticulously orchestrated to reveal such relatively minor perks as the family's French villa and access to private jets as proof of their exceptional venality.

Official trial reports included broadcast excerpts and frequent updates on the Chinese microblog known as Weibo, the equivalent of Twitter.

Ironically, even as the central authorities embraced the use of Weibo to spread its message about the trial, it has been making a sustained effort to rein in China's unruly online community of 600 million internet users.

In recent weeks, several internet celebrities, whose microblogs often have millions of subscribers, have been arrested or intimidated. Wang Gongquan, a venture capitalist who circulated a petition seeking the release of an activist law professor, has himself been charged with "organizing a mob to disturb public order."

Charles Xue, a wealthy Chinese-born American citizen with 12 million Weibo followers, was paraded on television confessing to consorting with prostitutes and admitting to being "irresponsible and egotistical" online.

Under new regulations, internet users posting what the government considers "rumours" can be punished not only for the content of their posts, but also for the numbers of people who read and spread them. 

The Bo Xilai trial and its glimpses of the Communist Party aristocrats and their dirty laundry are not evidence of greater openness, but of a more sophisticated effort to manage information.

The scandal has coincided with an unprecedented wave of internet activism with private citizens defying the vast apparatus of censorship measures to expose the bad behaviour of countless lesser officials.

The party is warning them to stop, or join Bo Xilai behind bars.

About the Author

Patrick Brown

Eye on Asia

Former CBC correspondent Patrick Brown has reported from world capitals and dusty backwaters for over 30 years, with a particular emphasis on Asia, having been based at different times in Bangkok, Delhi and, most recently, Beijing. He now splits his time between Canada and China as an independent documentary-maker. Follow Patrick Brown on Twitter: @truthfromfacts


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