Bo Xilai corruption trial a test for 'China's aristocracy': Patrick Brown

Bo Xilai, a member of China's Communist elite and a master of the show trial himself, faces his accusers on Thursday in what could be China's biggest political trial since the Gang of Four, Patrick Brown writes. How he fares will speak volumes about official China's war on corruption.

Thursday's trial a test of China's official crackdown

Former regional chief and politbureau member Bo Xilai, who led a showy crusade against corruption in Chongqing, now finds himself on the receiving end. His trial begins Thursday. (Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

Since the days of Chairman Mao, who liked to swim, China's leaders have gathered in the dog days of August for an annual retreat at the seaside town of Beidaihe, about 300 kilometres east of Beijing.

This quaint tradition survives because it's useful.

The formal business of the conference is to prepare for the fall plenum of the Central Committee, which will set priorities for the administration that took office earlier in the year under President Xi Jinping.

But the real business of Beidaihe is wheeling and dealing, and this year the main item on the agenda was China's most important political trial in decades: Bo Xilai, a former high-ranking politburo member accused of corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power gets his day in court on Thursday.

Some of the conversations at Beidaihe this month must have been reminiscent of the anxious chats taking place in Canada's cottage country, where senators are recuperating from the rigours of the Red Chamber. The hot topic is how a few bad apples are spoiling things for everyone.

In China's case, Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, and his wife, Gu Kailai, are seen to have brought an unwelcome spotlight on the political class through their egregious greed and wrongdoing.

Their lack of restraint has thrown a wrench into the smooth operation of a nice little gravy train, and it all took place on a scale that is unimaginable on the Canadian side of the Pacific.

China's corrupt politicians and their families amass fortunes in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and Bo ran his fiefdom in Chongqing like a mafia don, allegedly imprisoning political and business rivals, and arranging for the execution of an uncooperative subordinate.

His wife, Gu Kailai, has already been given a suspended death sentence for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. Their son, Bo Guagua, is notorious for living like a rock star while attending a series of prestigious Western schools.

Bo'x wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted and sentenced to death in August 2012 for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, a Bo family fixer, in 2011. The death sentence was commuted to life in prison. (Reuters)

This summer's ruling class sojourn at Beidaihe undoubtedly saw the conclusion of long negotiations over the details of Bo's trial and punishment.

Bo's family is part of Communist China's founding aristocracy, and he held a politburo seat, so he is thought to have immunity from execution.

Chinese courts have no compunctions about executing less prominent figures for lesser crimes, but the aim here is to bury him politically without rocking the boat too much.

The Bo dilemma

Like those old mafiosi who sit around regretting the good old days when loyalty and the code of silence really meant something, China's senior party members are now trying to come to terms with the fact that they no longer have full control over public information.

Senior Chinese officials used to live in the certainty that the slightest overt criticism of their actions was unthinkable. Now their dirtiest laundry can get an airing at the touch of the upload button. No one is safe.

Bo is the most senior example of a man brought low by a growing army of internet-age whistle-blowers, leakers, disgruntled subordinates and scorned mistresses.

His downfall began in February 2012, when he fell out with his police chief, Wang Lijun.

Wang blew the whistle by fleeing to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu with a bundle of incriminating information before surrendering to China's national security service.

That Bo's trial this week will be a finely choreographed farce is a foregone conclusion, not only because of the extreme sensitivity of the case for China's elite, but also because of the corruption of much of the country's judiciary.

Such corruption, and the vulnerability of officials to exposure on the internet, were both illustrated in high style this month in Shanghai.

A businessman named Ni Peiguo, who believed he had been wronged in a court case, spent months gathering evidence about the behaviour of three judges and a high court official. He then posted nine minutes of incriminating video on the internet.

Riveting scenes of these judges patronizing an expensive club and hiring prostitutes were seen by millions before the video could be censored. Two of the judges and the senior official were dismissed almost immediately. The fourth was excused, according to Chinese newspapers, because by the time the hookers were hired he was too drunk to perform.

The drama, known in China as "The Whoring Judges" soon became even juicier.

Announcing the dismissal of the judges, the acting president of the Shanghai Municipal Higher Court, Cui Yadong, was quoted by official newspapers as saying the judges' behaviour had "given an opportunity for foreign enemy forces to attack the party" and that there would be "zero tolerance" for such behaviour in the future.

However, Cui's apparent hypocrisy galled a group of some 70 policemen who had worked under him in his previous job as chief of police in Guizhou province, and they jumped onto the internet to upload a signed statement and other documents accusing him of accumulating property and vehicles worth millions of dollars.

Guizhou's most famous local product is a fiery liquor known as Moutai, which is very expensive when sold by the ounce, and Cui's subordinates claim he stole about 30 tonnes of it over a period of five years.

So-called gangsters are escorted out of a court during Bo Xilai's showy crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing in 2009. His current situation leaves open the question of whether any of these convictions will be overturned. (Reuters)

Such damning internet exposés of officials high and low are popping up almost daily now and are undermining the high-profile campaign against corruption on which President Xi has gambled much of his prestige.

China's leaders obviously hope the show trial planned for Bo Xilai will help stem the tide, by demonstrating that wrongdoing, even at the highest levels, is being punished.

Their difficulty, though, is that a genuine trial with complete evidence and unrestricted witness testimony would undoubtedly bring the party even further into disrepute, while a trial with too-sanitized evidence, and a relatively lenient sentence deal will convince no one.

Bo still has important supporters, and many are saying that he has done nothing that other senior leaders do not routinely do.

In this case, however, the credibility of President Xi Jinping's drive against corruption is at stake, though he cannot afford to have too much light shed on the wealth and privilege of China's leading families, including his own.

The Bo Xilai scandal has already produced many surprises. A fair, open trial would be the most astonishing outcome of all.