SINOGRAPH Bo breaks from script, but sticks to role
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - In 1980, when Mao's wife Gu Kailai - oops, Jiang Qing - told a tribunal that she acted on Mao's orders, the judges pretended not to believe her to protect the Great Helmsman's memory. In fact, they believed her so much that the country's leaders were turning China away from the path that Mao had set. Moreover, Jiang Qing made the proceedings totally political by arguing that it was the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) that were truly on trial, which was accurate but again officially ignored by the judges.
How does that situation compare with China's biggest political trial since then, against former Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai? Poorly.
Bo seemingly broke his pact with the prosecutors by not
respecting an agreed-upon script. He did that by not admitting his faults and yet not entirely disagreeing with the charges, as Jiang Qing did. In all this, he might have proved to be a lesser political leader than many have thought.
He won plaudits on the increasingly independent Chinese Internet by standing up to the prosecutors and denying the accusations, as well as the testimony of key witnesses such as his wife, Gu Kailai, and his former right-hand man, Wang Lijun.
Bo looked more truthful than Gu and Wang, who may have been coached and were cooperating with the court. Yet his act of total denial rings false. How could his wife and best friend both be lying in their testimony about Bo? Moreover, even if Bo were right, what does it say about a man if he marries a woman who is crazy (Gu) and closely collaborates with a violent liar (Wang)? (So spake Bo).
Therefore, most likely it was Bo who lied, and he is guilty as charged; or less likely, Bo has proven himself totally unreliable and stupid as a man and political leader by associating himself with horrible people like Gu and Wang.
This is only half of the story. By contradicting Gu and Wang's testimonies, Bo disrupted the trial, but only by half. He apparently had an interest, along with his prosecutors, in keeping the other half of the story hidden, the political element that brought down Jiang Qing.
Bo was being capitalistically corrupt while revamping the use of old Maoist tools: concentration of power, a crackdown on private companies, and boosting state-owned enterprises (SOEs). It was the combination of these two elements that ended his political life, yet for domestic reasons Beijing didn't want to open a discussion on both.
This is understandable. His ideas, branded as "neo-Maoism" outside China and as a "New Left" in China, are still strongly supported in the country.
There is support from party elders who perhaps have vested interests in protecting the power of SOEs, and popular grassroots support among those nostalgic for Mao's egalitarian times. Bo's "Robin Hood" policies in Chongqing, confiscating from the rich and redistributing to the poor, were also very popular among the people who had gained less from the reforms and were feeling left behind.
But there is another idea circulating in China and abroad - that Bo's rebuttal of the testimony and his argument with the prosecutors were staged.
"Bo Xilai served the Party very well in the trial," argued Feng Chongyi from University of Technology in Sydney. "He 'demonstrated' the progress of the rule of law in China with his rigorous defense. He also toed the line and protected the party by not revealing any scandals of his former politburo colleagues. Understandably the verdict negotiated before the trial will be released in due course, irrespective of the court procedures."
This would explain why the court didn't counter-argue by saying, "if Gu is crazy and Wang is a liar, why did you associate with these people for so long? Doesn't this reveal a lot about you and your dealings?"
Yet while possible and fascinating, this theory would imply a huge amount of preparation - and an even greater ability to perform. Bo looked natural, as did the judges and the court.
Gu and Wang looked coached, which is in line with the intended results.This raises another question: can this amount of preparation and acting by so many people involved in a public proceeding go undetected in China today? If the country can't keep the prime minister's mother's bank account secret, as seen in the famous exposes by The New York Times, can authorities hope to keep such a huge manipulation of public opinion under wraps?
In life, and even in Chinese politics, accidents happen and this seems to be the case now. What is less clear is why Bo did not bring politics into the court.
He had an interest in making the trial political. Before his fall, Bo was a contender for a top position in Beijing. He was defeated in a political power struggle, and he went on trial because of his defeat - or at least so he could have argued before the judges.
If he had, his ideas could have won greater audience in China, and with or without him neo-Maoism would have had a greater political profile. But he didn't. Why? We don't know, but the feeling is that by not making the trial political, he wanted to send a signal that he might come back and could be rehabilitated in the future.
This would put the party's present hold on power at risk. Just a hint of Bo's possible future rehabilitation would cast a heavy shadow on the two generations of leaders who sanctioned the trial, those of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping.
Then, according to the old party script, the leaders should start a full-blown campaign against the so-called neo-Maoists. Yet this is impossible. Going against Mao would shake the foundation of legitimacy of the party, which is in power because Mao won the civil war against the Nationalists of the Kuomintang and more importantly because Mao and Maoist policies have great support among the common people.
In fact, in the event of elections, a neo-Maoist party could win at the ballots, so why should the ruling party abandon this invaluable flag to go against its roots and itself?
Bo's winning proposition was this: he had the support of the people, the blessing of history, and the backing of the vested interests who wanted to change as little as possible. In fact, one could say that if it weren't for Wang Lijun's flight to the US consulate, he would still be in power.
Then for Beijing although the fantasy of Bo's return is dangerous, it is less dangerous than opening a huge domestic front that would expose the party to all kinds of opposition. Therefore, it is better to isolate the problem, as it was done in the trial.
Yet the party has indicated it will not simply sit at the fence and wait for Bo to do his time while his supporters outside gain momentum. Last week insistent rumors were circulating in Beijing about former security czar Zhou Yongkang, being put under investigation for corruption.
A number of his associates at the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) were also put under investigation, including CNPC boss and presently head of the State Planning and Reform Commission, Jiang Jiemin. Zhou is a famously staunch supporter of Bo.
Any attack against Zhou therefore is an indication that the leadership wants to get rid of the whole political network close to Bo - to eradicate his influence in the party and thus minimize the possibility of his return.
Still, the story is not finished. The two latest challenges to party rule - in 1999 with the Falun Gong (an esoteric sect with cells inside the party) protests and in 2011 with Bo - both came from the left. Yet party rhetoric focuses on dangers from the right.
The 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square and Gorbachev's reforms in the USSR in the 1980s were "rightist" mistakes. For at least 20 years, there were no great challenges from the right, but there were two major challenges from the left. This may also be because there was vigilance on the right and not on the left, and this should be a warning to at least equalize priorities.
Perhaps there is also something deeper. Any challenge to this ruling-party system would need a large movement from outside China, like the Tiananmen demonstrations, and then a massive effort to split the party from the state and break up the party structures.
Western-style democracy with all its trappings might be a goal, but it would be very hard to implement it overnight. It was very difficult for Gorbachev to implement political reforms in the Soviet Union in the 1980s as the party resisted over its privileges.
Since then, the Chinese Communist Party has evolved - it has become cleverer and far harder to disband and enacting necessary reforms in the party's rule will be a long and difficult process. Attempting to take shortcuts could lead to chaos of Egyptian proportions, and it would be impossible for such "movements" to hide or go undetected, as happened for years with both Falun Gong and Bo Xilai.
Starting a movement against reforms could be more easily organized. It would be enough for a group of people to climb to the top and put the brakes on change. In most cases if they fail, they can say they did so because they were loyal party members.
This situation creates a lucrative opportunity, in economic terms, for speculating on the left but none for speculating on the right. Moreover there is no real danger that the party rule can be toppled by rightists whereas there is real proven danger that party rule can be hijacked from the left.
The deeper lesson of the Bo affair is perhaps that the party, while keen on holding on to power, ought to reassess some of its priorities.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org