Questions linger as Bo Xilai trial ends
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - The trial of former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai has ended after five riveting days in a courtroom in the eastern city of Jinan, but Bo's ghost will hang over Chinese politics for years to come. While the trial is over, the verdict is yet to come and many questions linger - about the vanquished Bo and about those who vanquished him.
It may be a coincidence that top forensic scientist Wang Xuemei resigned from the Chinese Forensic Medicine Association, of which she was vice president, in the same week that Bo went to trial on charges of corruption.
Even if that is the case, however, the resignation of Wang, the only senior forensic official to question the government finding that
British businessman Neil Heywood died from cyanide poisoning administered by Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, serves as a reminder that nothing that happened at Bo's trial should be taken at face value.
While the newly installed leadership of President Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang would like the Chinese public, as well as the rest of the world, to see the trial - China's biggest and most sensational since Madame Mao's Gang of Four was brought down 33 years ago for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution - as a glowing showcase for the government's stepped-up efforts to wipe out corruption, the glass is cracked.
Yes, in an unprecedented move, the titillating if convoluted narrative of Bo's spectacular downfall has been allowed to unfold tweet by tweet on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, from the Intermediate People's Court in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province. And the trial - expected by China watchers to last no more than a day or two - went on for five days.
A spirited and defiant Bo has been granted both the time and space to be heard. Still, it has been clear all along that central authorities have set the stage and largely controlled the action in this drama to highlight an anti-corruption drive that up to this point has been wholly unconvincing. With Bo as their poster boy, they hope to change that perception.
In the end, however, Bo's crimes (and eventual punishment) will only highlight how deep and brazenly widespread corruption continues to be in China - and how tangled is the web and opaque the color of Communist Party rule.
There is nothing redeeming in this tale of greed, lust, murder and betrayal.
Notwithstanding his feisty ripostes in the courtroom, there is little doubt that Bo, 64, will be convicted of the three charges against him: bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. Looking as poised and confident as ever (albeit also a little grayer and more drawn), the once high-flying son of privilege called his wife "crazy," one of his chief accusers a "mad dog" and the testimony of his former right-hand-man in Chongqing "bullshit" - later re-tweeted on Sina Weibo as "nonsense''.
Although he admitted being unfaithful to his wife (and also claimed that she had returned the favor), Bo vehemently denied all charges against him.
All told, his was a bravura performance that reminded both Bo's supporters and detractors of what an artful and gifted politician he was. But it won't score him any points in the Chinese justice system.
Bo's personal story ends in Jinan - probably with a 15- to 20-year sentence under the enforced obscurity of house arrest. The political reverberations of his extraordinary fall from grace will be felt in China for years to come.
Frankly, in the culture of corruption that is rapidly eating away at the soul of the Communist Party, the charges leveled against Bo are common peccadillos practiced by officials, high and low, nationwide. They do not explain why a former Politburo member and princeling like Bo - son of Bo Yibo, regarded as one of the party's Eight Immortals, or Eight Elders, for his part in implementing the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s that would transform China into economic powerhouse - found himself in the dock in Jinan for the past five days.
Bo may have exited China's political stage, but the long-playing corruption drama goes on unabated, despite repeated high-profile campaigns that have purportedly been launched against the endemic rot in the party power structure.
No, malfeasance was likely the least of Bo's offenses; what simply could not be tolerated any longer by key figures above him in the party hierarchy, among them former president Hu Jintao and former premier Wen Jiabao, were his brazen arrogance and overweening desire for power.
After serving ably as minister of commerce and gaining a seat on the 25-member ruling Politburo at the 17th Party Congress in 2007, Bo - who had received international praise for his agile mind, poise and confidence that may have represented a threat to the likes of the colorless Hu and grandfatherly Wen - found himself exiled to the sprawling, crime-ridden municipality of Chongqing, population around 33 million.
Undaunted, however, with the help of his police chief and right-hand-man, Wang Lijun, Bo quickly turned Chongqing into an audacious platform for a brash new brand of leadership that would be touted by enthusiasts as the "Chongqing model''.
The model had two key elements that made Bo very popular in Chongqing and, once again, a star on the national stage: an unprecedented crackdown on crime ruthlessly carried out by Wang and a revival of Maoist thought and mass rallies that critics said harkened back to the days of the Cultural Revolution, the decade-long purge launched by Mao Zedong to eliminate his political enemies that ended with his death in 1976.
Those criticisms aside, Bo's success as party boss in Chongqing - even though it appeared to come at the cost of the civil liberties of thousands of suspected criminals and corrupt officials caught up in Wang's anti-crime dragnet - could not be ignored, and he hoped to parlay that success into an appointment to the all-powerful, seven-member Politburo Standing Committee at the 18th Party Congress in November of 2012.
But all of Bo's power schemes came crashing down earlier that year when Wang, who had been abruptly removed from his post as police chief on February 2, traveled to the US consulate in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, four days later to ask for asylum, apparently in exchange for damning information on Bo and his wife.
Wang remained at the consulate for 24 hours, but in the end American officials turned down his request. He was then seized by security officials shortly after departing the consulate. Six months later, he was tried and convicted of taking bribes, attempted defection and abuse of power and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Sparks flew when Bo once again came face to face with his former top aide in the courtroom. Wang testified that when he confronted Bo with evidence that Gu had murdered Heywood, Bo punched him in the face, drawing blood. Bo, calling Wang an "abominable character" whose testimony could not be trusted, admitted to striking him but characterized the blow as more of "a slap" than a punch. He also suggested that Wang was having an affair with Gu.
Five weeks after Wang's sojourn in the US consulate, Bo was removed from his Chongqing post as well as from the Politburo, sending shockwaves through Chinese politics that have yet to cease, and both he and his wife were detained.
In a one-day trial on August 20, 2012, a remarkably cooperative Gu, after thanking authorities for "the humanitarian care shown to me'', was convicted of murdering Heywood over a business dispute and was handed a suspended death sentence.
Observers noted that the photograph of the chubby-faced, thick-waisted woman penitently standing in a courtroom that day in the city of Hefei in eastern Anhui province was a questionable match with previous photos of the lean, stylish and attractive Gu. Internet chatrooms lit up with speculation that the woman in the photograph was a poor double while the real Gu, a prominent lawyer and daughter of party elder and military leader Gu Jingshen, was likely a free woman. Officials insisted that Gu, not an imposter, was the woman at the trial.
In the video recording of her testimony at her husband's trial, which only served to bolster the prosecution's case against him, Gu, 54, appeared older but was once again lean and svelte.
Bo called her testimony "comical" and "ridiculous'', claiming it was made under duress by a mentally unstable woman so as to mitigate her own punishment for the murder of Heywood, which Bo stands accused of trying to cover up.
Conspicuously absent from the trial, although his name has come up frequently, was Bo Guagua, the jet-setting 25-year-old son of Gu and Bo who is currently enrolled at Columbia University Law School in New York City. Bo Guagua's playboy lifestyle and expensive foreign education - before going to Columbia, he attended England's Oxford University and Harvard University in the US - was allegedly financed by Bo's ill-gotten gains in Chongqing and, before that, bribes he is charged with accepting during his time (1992-2000) as mayor and later party chief of the northeastern city of Dalian.
Gu testified that, using cyanide, she poisoned Heywood in a Chongqing hotel room on November 14, 2011, after he threatened the safety of her son unless she met his demands in a business dispute.
One of China's leading forensic experts, Wang Xuemei, says that's not true - that, based on the official statement on Heywood's death, she could see no evidence of cyanide poisoning - and the same sort of doubt could be cast over the rest of the so-called facts in this case.
There is only one thing we know for sure: The runaway ambition of Bo Xilai, who dreamed of being his country's president and jockeyed relentlessly toward that goal, was buried today in a courtroom in Jinan.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1
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