The unremarkable case of Bo Xilai

Posted: April 11, 2012 in Politics
Tags: ,

We’ve now learned via Xinhua and Global Times that Bo Xilai has been officially stripped of his government positions and his family is being investigated for the murder of former British business associate Neil Heywood. What’s important to remember here is that a litany of crimes, possibly including murder, committed by one of China’s 25 most powerful leaders isn’t what’s remarkable about this story. What’s remarkable is simply that the government is acknowledging it. But why?

Step back for a moment and consider some of the events that led to where Bo is today:

  • In February suspicions were raised over a death which had occurred three months earlier. This dead person happened to be a foreigner, ensuring that people outside the controllable domestic media and police would take an unyielding interest.
  • Wang Lijun, Bo’s Chongqing police chief, apparently ran into trouble while investigating Neil Heywood’s death and/or activities by Bo’s wife, yet he persisted.
  • Wang Lijun was fired by Bo and fled to the American consulate in Chengdu drawing international attention to the affair.
  • Uncensored information was allowed to run wild on microblogs, making much of China aware of the Bo saga.
  • Bo fell on the opposite side of the political spectrum from some of the top leaders in the Communist Party (ie. Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao).

The Titanic didn’t sink simply because it swiped an iceberg. Any colossal disaster is the result of multiple, mutually-aggravating factors that come together in a perfect storm. Subtract any one of these factors and it’s highly possible Bo would be sitting in one of the most powerful positions in the world one year from now. He was very unlucky.

It would be very naive though to think that Bo’s crimes are anything extraordinary in a system where the same people who wield complete political control also control the police, courts and media theoretically responsible for indicting them. Consider that Bo’s replacement as Chongqing party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, almost certainly had a hand in concealing from the world the breakout of a dangerous, highly-infectious disease, which caused incalculable deaths and illnesses. Several other high-level leaders were sacked. Zhang wasn’t.

Jia Qinglin presided over Fujian Province during the Yuanhua case – one of the biggest corruption scandals in China’s history. He was widely expected to be taken down with several other high officials who were jailed or executed. Instead, he became the 4th most powerful man in China. Then there’s Jiang Zemin, who’s had several close ties convicted in major corruption scandals – including the mastermind of the Yuanhua case. And these are all just the most powerful and publicly visible leaders. Imagine how easy it would be for lower leaders to imprison (ergo discredit) or kill off potential aggravators.

The Chinese media is already hailing the Bo case as evidence China is under the rule of law. The Xinhua piece that broke the latest news was titled “Police reinvestigate death of Neil Heywood according to law” It and the Global Times piece contained phrases like, “Police authorities paid high attention to the case, and are reinvestigating the case according to law with an attitude to seek truth from facts” and “[A senior official said] the incident would neither disrupt the Party’s 18th National Congress in fall nor the country’s long-term political and social development.”

When the state media uses statements like these so gratuitously, it’s a flimsy way of compensating for the fact that the opposite is probably true. You can be sure that at every turn in the Bo case, legal considerations were made only in the context of their political implications.

We don’t know how guilty any of the other leaders mentioned above are, and we may never know. The media and individuals aren’t allowed to touch them with a ten foot pole, despite the fact that the law clearly says they are.

In China, political winners and losers are decided by unpredictable backroom tactical cunning rather than the ballot box. In the internet age though, anyone with a bone to pick or rival to eliminate can leak damning information easily and anonymously. Cases like Bo’s will inevitably become more common and destabilizing in the future without political reform.

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