Bo Xilai trial: Political eulogy or first step toward a comeback?

August 24, 2013

For a man toppled from power, purged from China’s ruling Communist Party and almost certain to spend much of the next decade in prison, disgraced official Bo Xilai is certainly not behaving like someone whose political life is over.

For the past week, at times in spectacular fashion, Bo has funneled the full force of his charismatic personality into defending himself at his trial in the city of Jinan. His effectiveness at preserving his image as a maverick populist leader — and the fact that party leaders have allowed that to happen — has surprised many observers in China and may be laying the groundwork for a political rehabilitation many years from now.

The history of the Communist Party in China offers almost as many examples of political comebacks as it does high-profile purges like the one that befell Bo.

Bo’s own father was purged and imprisoned, only to reemerge as a powerful party elder in the 1980s and ’90s. And China’s current president, Xi Jinping, who is thought to be playing a key role in deciding Bo’s fate, watched his father fall from grace and return to set the stage for his son’s rise to the pinnacle of China’s political hierarchy.

Bo was ousted as party chief in the southwestern mega-city of Chongqing last year after his police chief implicated Bo’s wife in the death of a British businessman, triggering the party’s biggest crisis in decades.

Whether he or any other deposed party leader could pull off a comeback in the modern era remains unclear. Many analysts still consider it unlikely that he could regain a high position in the party, but it is thought possible he could at least preserve his political legacy and thus some connection to party power.

His performance thus far — at a trial many had thought would serve as his political eulogy — is helping those odds.

“The trial is Bo’s last chance, and he’s making full use of it to project an indomitable and unyielding personality and to defend his image,” said Li Weidong, former editor of China Reform magazine. “Even though he will go to prison without a doubt, he wants to depart as the standard-bearer of his cause.”

As the trial stretched into a third day Saturday, Bo admitted in court that he had made mistakes that shamed his country and said he reacted poorly when his police chief told him his wife had committed murder. But he denied he was guilty of any crimes.

Bo’s goal at trial

Bo became a rising party star in part because of his shrewdly cultivated appeal to popular sentiment. Even as he made use of the party’s traditional route to power through backroom deals and patronage, he launched leftist, Maoist-style campaigns that garnered him a large and loyal grass-roots following.

His spirited responses and showmanlike tactics at his trial this past week appear to have the same goal.

Many of those the party targets for punishment cooperate quietly in their scripted trials. But Bo appears to have leveraged his remaining support among powerful party allies to strike a deal that has allowed his trial to be publicized, almost in real time, through online posts on China’s social media.

In transcripts, photos and videos uploaded by state media and court authorities, Bo has come off as comfortable and sharp as he confronts his accusers.

In one particularly riveting exchange on the trial’s first day, he cross-examined a billionaire who had testified about gifts and bribes he allegedly lavished on Bo and his family. Bo picked him apart with a barrage of more than 20 questions.

“You said you supported Bo Gua­gua [Bo’s son] and you covered his expenses for airline tickets, credit cards and an electric vehicle. Have you ever told me that?” Bo asked.

“No,” Xu Ming said.

“Have you ever told me about Africa, that you covered their expenses?”

“No.”

“Thank you for being truthful. You bought Gu Kailai [Bo’s wife] expensive items. You bought Bo Guagua luxury watches. And have you ever told me that?”

“No.”

Nevertheless, the authorities appear to be trying to gradually guide public opinion toward certainty of Bo’s guilt.

Editorials and commentaries denouncing Bo and deriding his defense tactics have been prominently placed in party-controlled media. The government’s propaganda department has instructed Chinese media in recent days not to include “anything of benefit to Bo, such as his ‘20 questions’ questioning of Xu Ming in court,” according to the U.S.-based China Digital Times Web site.

And the court transcripts, released by the state in a tightly controlled manner, have switched focus in the past two days from Bo’s vigorous rebuttals of witnesses to evidence presented against him.

On Saturday, according to the latest transcripts, Bo’s former police chief, Wang Lijun, accused Bo of covering up his wife’s murder of British businessman Neil Heywood — a charge Bo denied.

The political winds

Many in China, including bloggers, analysts and party journalists and officials, say they remain convinced that nothing Bo says will alter a guilty verdict probably determined in advance. But they are divided on what that will mean for Bo’s future.

Many predict Bo will be sent to prison for 15 to 20 years. Such a sentence would allow Xi to serve out his 10-year term as president without having to deal with Bo again. What happens beyond that, however, depends in part on which way the political winds blow.

In the party’s early years, rehabilitations often hinged on titanic shifts in political power and waves of turmoil such as the Cultural Revolution. If China’s political situation changes dramatically in the next few years, Bo may get his chance, said Zhang Lifan, a historian in Beijing whose father also lost party support and endured persecution. “China is currently in a unique historical period,” he said. “Society is polarized, and unrest may happen.”

Even falling short of a true comeback, however, Bo may have accomplished enough with his trial to ensure a shot at another role with a long history in China: the defeated but potent spiritual leader of a political faction.

That is what the trial has really been about, many say.

To party leaders such as Bo who have studied the history of Chinese politics, Zhang said, “the natural life is of much less consequence than the political life.”

Li Qi contributed to this report.

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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