Continuing the Discussion: Bo Xilai’s Trial: The Rule of Law in China

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Guest Contributor at SAIS Nanjing

On Sunday, September 22, Bo Xilai, the former party secretary of Chongqing municipality and a widely regarded shoe-in for one of the few coveted seats on the nation’s Politburo Standing Committee, was sentenced to life in prison for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power.

Many were surprised by the relative openness of the trial. Court transcripts and video, although edited and incomplete, were released within hours of court proceedings in the official media and on the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court’s official Weibo account. Bo’s ability to cross-examine witnesses and speak at length in his own defense was also seen by many as a signal that the Chinese government may be moving toward a rule of law system.

“The Bo trial was more open than any other corruption trial of high-ranking officials in China,” legal scholar Tong Zhiwei, told The New York Times.

Chinese state media similarly lauded the trial for its openness. A commentary in The Global Times said the trial “was a vivid demonstration of how the rule of law should be implemented.”

The trial is reminiscent, at least in political significance and intrigue, to the trial of the “Gang of Four,” in 1981. The defendants, among them Chairman Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, were charged with an array of anti-revolutionary crimes. While widely regarded as a show trial, China watchers were surprised by the relative openness of that trial as well.

The Time correspondent covering the trial, Jaime FlorCruz, said in a recent article that despite China’s tight control of the media, “the Chinese newspapers, radio and TV were saturated with ‘gavel to gavel’ reports.” FlorCruz, now the Beijing bureau chief for CNN is the rare foreign correspondent that has covered both trials.

But does increased transparency imply rule of law? In the case of the “Gang of Four” trial, few debate the political motivations behind the trial and most see the extensive coverage
of the trial by state media as an attempt to deprive the defendants of political influence. At a time when the government was facing a potential legitimacy crisis after the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, the trial communicated to the people that the government had punished those perceived as responsible.

In both of these trials, equating openness with rule of law is misleading; it fails to acknowledge that the relative transparency came not from an inherent respect for the law but from a desire to maintain legitimacy.

Rule of law is the guarantee of transparency and a fair trial for all according to the law. One high profile, politically charged trial does not a trend make. The better way to describe the situation is that China is moving toward a system where its legitimacy is more linked to appearing to be following the laws. Perhaps this can be the precursor to genuine respect for the law.

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