IN CHINA, they are calling it a “trial” of the former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai. He has been accused of corruption and abuse of power in a case involving a murder and shadowy struggles over wealth and power. While the proceedings are being held in a courthouse with defense lawyers and prosecutors, they are really just a show by which the Communist Party rulers are dealing with a disgraced member of their own club and trying to keep matters in check. That is the larger meaning of this spectacle — China is not a rule-of-law state and is at war with those who want it to be one.

In nations that genuinely respect the rule of law, not even the highest officials are above the law. But China has put its Communist Party above it, and the party often dictates to judges, prosecutors and police. The “trial” that opened Thursday has a riveting story line involving allegations of bribes taken by one of the party’s rising stars. On his first day in court, Mr. Bo was “ surprisingly combative ,” as The Post reported, renouncing an earlier confession and denouncing the testimony of his wife that she routinely took bundles of cash out of the family safe. Whatever the spectacle, however, the verdict will be determined behind the curtain by party bigwigs.

It is not as if China hasn’t experimented with legal reform. As professor Carl Minzner writes in the Journal of Democracy, party officials in the 1970s and 1980s turned their backs on Mao’s revolutionary principles and launched extensive changes aimed at building new structures to govern China. They created a comprehensive framework of civil, commercial, criminal and administrative law, built a more professional judicial system and encouraged court trials to resolve disputes. They saw this as a way to ease China’s huge social conflicts and channel popular discontent into institutions within the existing structure. By the 2000s, there was a cadre of public-interest lawyers and legal activists, such as Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer and activist now in the United States.

But China did not go so far as to establish rule of law. The party has refused to tolerate those who challenge its legitimacy. Among the latest victims are advocates from a loose network of lawyers, scholars and advocates in the “rights defense” movement, which seeks to expand citizens’ rights through litigation, petitions, publicity and training. On Aug. 17, media reported that police in southern China notified the family of activist Yang Maodong of his detention. He is the second well-known member of the movement to be arrested recently: In July, the authorities took in rights advocate Xu Zhiyong, who had demanded that party officials disclose their wealth to the public.

The logic of China’s leaders in recent decades was correct in one sense — building a state based on law is healthy for society. It can help resolve tensions, ease disputes and create respect for authority. But it cannot be a half measure. To have credibility and sustaining power, the rule of law has to reach all the way to the top.

Read more about this issue:

The Post’s View: Making China keep its promise to dissident Chen Guangcheng

Perry Link: America’s outdated view of China

Sally Jenkins: What sustains Chinese truth-tellers

The Post’s View: Defending Chen Guangcheng

Yang Jianli: Will the U.S. support an escaped Chinese activist?