The Bo Xilai Trial and Rule of Law in China
Following the Sept. 22 sentencing of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai to life in prison on corruption charges, state-run media hailed the case as an example of China’s growing commitment to rule of law.
“The court not only made public the proceedings and results of the trial, but also gave the legal basis and reasoning for the judgment in the verdict announced Sunday,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary. “It was a vivid demonstration of how the rule of law should be implemented.”
Bo, the son of revolutionary leader Bo Yibo, was a one-time rising star in the Communist Party. After tenures as mayor of the northeastern city of Dalian and minister of commerce, he took over the Chongqing party chief role in 2007. Supporters hailed the social and economic programs he implemented to turn the city around, but critics took issue with the Mao Zedong-era propaganda underlying his reforms. Despite being named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2010, Bo's fortunes changed when his former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun sought refuge in the American consulate in Chengdu two years later. Wang revealed that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered British businessman and longtime family associate Neil Heywood. An investigation into the matter led to further discoveries of corruption in the southwestern Chinese city, which also contributed to Bo’s downfall.
In its statements through state-run media, the Chinese government is clearly stressing some aspects of rule of law over others. Most official commentaries have focused mainly not on the due process Bo received but the idea that his conviction shows even high-ranking officials aren’t above the law. After all, there was never any doubt he would be convicted. Chinese courts are under the control of the Communist Party and the most vigorous defense in the world would not have won him an acquittal against the party’s wishes.
For that reason, many observers saw just another political show trial. But some say the Chinese government might have delivered a lesson in due process, albeit inadvertently.
New York University School of Law Professor Jerome Cohen says the parts of the televised proceedings in which Bo defiantly denied accusations against him and questioned the motives of prosecution witnesses are likely to have an impact on the Chinese public.
“It showed someone actively defending himself against the government and it showed how to do it through cross-examination,” says Cohen. One disappointment, he says, was that Bo was unable to cross-examine his wife, Gu Kailai, whose testimony against her husband was partially shown through a video clip in court.
“It offered an opportunity for legal education [to the Chinese public],” Cohen adds. “The case will improve the understanding of legal process, and to inspire greater demand for it in other cases.”
Along with showing some of the trial on television, the Chinese government also offered minute-by-minute updates on the proceeding via China’s Twitter-like Weibo service.
"The level of openness and transparency was unprecedented. This case certainly shows hope of progress in China's justice system," says Gao Zicheng, a partner at Beijing Kangda Law Firm who has previously defended a number of other top officials charges with corruption.