The trial of Bo Xilai is not lacking in drama. China-watchers everywhere have been following the case of the former member of the ruling politburo, who stands accused of corruption and covering up a murder, with great intensity. In China itself, it has captivated scores of followers on Weibo, a hugely popular social media site. Elsewhere there has been much breathless commentary about how the proceedings of the trial marked a new chapter in China’s legal history. But in fact the conduct of the trial may not be as novel as first thought. The real story may be in the other moves under way against other powerful players.
Much has been made of the robust physical appearance and cross-examination skills of Mr Bo. However, look closely, and it is clear he was careful in all his public statements. He did not suggest that the corrupt and opulent practices alleged were widespread among the party elite, he did not finger other senior compatriots, and he was careful in all cases to uphold the sanctity of the party. What is clear is that he carefully constructed a public image that he hopes will keep him in play for an uncertain future should an orthodox faction in the party come looking for a new champion.
The state’s case was more complicated and indicative of perhaps a larger campaign. There were, of course, the lurid details of the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, for which Gu Kailai, Mr Bo’s wife, was earlier found guilty, and the ostentatious appetites of the new elite. However, the real thrust of the prosecution case was that Mr Bo contemplated the overthrow of the current elite through shadowy dealings with the security services. This was his truly unforgivable sin.
Although it was once a revolutionary party prepared to take remarkable risks, the modern Chinese Communist party is designed to promote cautious, status quo types with technical backgrounds and strong preferences for public order. However, despite the most effective culling mechanisms, sometimes a wolf slips through. Mr Bo was just such a wolf, prepared to use red-meat propaganda, the cult of personality, and the security services at his disposal to advance his political ambitions. So the first aim of the trial was to undermine his credentials as a communist, not his indulgences as a corrupt apparatchik.
Despite the publicity surrounding the case, there is much more drama brewing behind the scenes. Chinese authorities recently announced corruption investigations against senior executives from the state oil conglomerate, China National Petroleum Corporation. It was also revealed that Jiang Jiemin, the high-ranking state enterprise tsar, had been removed from his position for alleged “grave violations of discipline”.
Perhaps more importantly, Zhou Yongkang, former member of the Politburo Standing Committee — where he was responsible for security — is the target of a state-sanctioned probe for alleged corruption. Tellingly, one of the titbits discussed during Mr Bo’s trial were allegations of Mr Zhou’s rumoured role in suspicious plotting against the most senior members of the elite.
Mr Zhou’s involvement in all of this is highly unusual, given that no standing committee member – whether active or retired – has been scrutinised by state authorities for corruption since the end of the cultural revolution.
These public struggles are emblematic of a bitter underground battle between the orthodox and reform wings of the Communist party that are playing out with greater frequency and intensity since the new leadership team came to power. There are signs that these manoeuverings will reach a fever pitch just ahead of the assembly in November, where critical elements of the government’s economic agenda will be decided. A reformist coalition of finance and bank officials have squared off against a powerful bureaucratic combination comprised of the security and military services, party propaganda barons, and senior executives of state-run enterprises.
Under the direction of Premier Li Keqiang and Liu He, his point man for reform, a small team of reform-minded bureaucrats has put forward an ambitious plan for bank reform and new investment laws that could have significant implications for financial sector liberalisation. However, these plans are aimed like a dagger at the inefficient state-owned enterprises and bloated banks — and a business model that favours suppressed consumption, state subsidies, and export-led growth over a new direction that would put a premium on more consumer-led growth.
The big question mark amid the public trials, sordid speculation, and intraparty manoeuvring is where President Xi Jinping stands in all of this. To date, he has remained largely above the fray, manoeuvering among the factions, but it will be difficult to avoid hard choices for much longer.
This post has been amended to reflect the fact that Gu Kailai was found guilty of the murder of Neil Heywood