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Risks over Bo Xilai case could prompt China to seek low-profile resolution

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BEIJING — As they prepare for a once-in-a-generation turnover of power, China’s leaders appear to be seeking a quick and quiet resolution in the case of Bo Xilai, a top official ousted from his Communist Party posts, Western diplomats and Chinese analysts say.

Rather than risk a sensational trial, authorities appear most likely to simply expel Bo from the party, a step that could be taken swiftly and out of public view, the diplomats and analysts said. Such an approach would be intended to minimize public scrutiny of a Chinese system of graft and greed that Bo has come to symbolize.

A foreign diplomat with access to senior Chinese leaders said he had been told that Bo’s case would be handled soon, before the 18th party congress convenes this fall to settle on the country’s new leadership team.

Bo has been the target of wide-ranging corruption allegations since his wife, Gu Kailai, and a household aide were arrested on suspicion of killing a British businessman, Neil Heywood. Bo has not been accused in Heywood’s death, but his downfall has focused attention on questionable dealings involving one of China’s most powerful families, including allegations that Bo family members used their political connections to secure lucrative business deals and prime positions.

In the past, the party has typically used corruption cases to bring down some powerful and prominent officials, including former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong, who lost out in a power struggle and was jailed on embezzlement charges in 1995, and former Shanghai mayor Chen Liangyu, who was fired in 2006 and sentenced to prison two years later after being convicted of misusing local pension funds. Chen Liangyu is thought to have fallen afoul of President Hu Jintao.

Bo’s elder brother, Bo Xiyong — who also goes by the name Li Xueming — served as a director and vice chairman of China Everbright International, an alternative-energy company listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, and reportedly earned millions in stock options before stepping down in April. A younger brother, Bo Xicheng, a director of several state-owned firms, has been involved in lucrative investments in Dalian, where Bo Xilai served as mayor. And two of Gu’s sisters are widely reported to have financial holdings worth more than $100 million through a web of business ventures stretching from Shenzhen to the British Virgin Islands.

But the behavior of Bo Xilai — and his family — was quite typical for a high-ranking member of the ruling party’s Politburo, analysts and others said. And prosecuting Bo on corruption charges would only expose the depth of the problem and the flaws in the party’s self-policing system.

“The fact is, so many leaders are corrupt — it’s a widely pervasive phenomenon,” said Cheng Li, a scholar with the Brookings Institution in Washington and an expert on China’s leadership. “The media — the Chinese and foreign media — will continue to go after corruption. The public will still talk about corruption.” But for the party, he said, “the emphasis will be on the other, criminal things.” He said Gu could face corruption charges — but not before the party congress.

Bo was a popular, charismatic and media-savvy figure — a rare standout for a Communist Party leader — and he seemed destined for a seat on the powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, which in effect runs the country. And, though ousted, he enjoys significant residual support in Chongqing, where he was the party chief and was credited with improving ordinary people’s living standards.

Bo also became a hero among China’s “new leftists” for his advocacy of a more equitable distribution of wealth and his “red revival” campaign, including organized singing pageants of Mao-era revolutionary songs.

Given his popular following, Chinese authorities would want any punishment of Bo to be accepted as legitimate. And a corruption trial, in a system in which graft has become so widespread, is unlikely to pass public scrutiny.

“His collapse was not caused by his corruption problem but purely because of a political struggle,” said Willy Wo Lap Lam, a longtime China watcher who is with the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “In order to maintain the unity of the party before the 18th party congress, the Central Committee is going to make Bo’s case a single, individual case without prosecuting any more [of his] allies . . . and without prosecuting Bo for his economic problems.” Lam and others predicted that the top leaders would reach a decision at their regular summer retreat at the seaside resort of Beidaihe.

“Compared to other families in the party, the corruption problem of Bo’s family is not necessarily very serious,” Lam said. “So it’s not very legitimate for them to prosecute Bo for corruption. And they face the risk of expanding the problem to other party members. Right now, unity and stability within the party is their first priority.”

Experts who monitor corruption among China’s leaders, as well as internal government reports, say Bo’s case is just the tip of a graft iceberg, with corruption reaching all levels of the party.

A Central Bank report last year said that from the mid-1990s to 2008, as many as 18,000 people — Communist Party and government officials, members of the public security branch and top officials of state-owned enterprises — had fled China with more than $120 billion in stolen public funds. It said most of the money was laundered to the United States, Australia or countries in Southeast Asia, disguised as legitimate business transactions.

Corruption has persisted, even worsened, despite the stated efforts of Premier Wen Jiabao and other top leaders to rein in the problem. The party has taken steps announced with much public fanfare, such as requiring all officials at higher than the county level to disclose their assets. That regulation was later amended to require that officials also disclose the assets of family members.

And like other measures intended to combat corruption, those regulations have largely been ignored or proven ineffective. There remains no requirement that the asset declarations be made public.

The biggest obstacle to reform, experts said, is a lack of political will.

“Only when the regime is endangered and stability is threatened will they really start to combat corruption,” said Ren Jianming, a Tsinghua University professor and director of the Center for Integrity Research and Education, which studies corrupt practices.

Researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.

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