September 23, 2013, by Editor

Bo Xilai and the meaning of life

Written by Jackie Sheehan.

He still doesn’t get it, does he? The last top CCP figure to be removed from a courtroom shouting defiance was Mao’s widow Jiang Qing at the Gang of Four’s show trial in 1980, but her parting shot was “To rebel is justified!”, which had a little bit more substance to it than Bo’s reported cries of “Unjust! Unfair!”, which amount to little more than “Poor me!”

Bo considers himself a victim, but the fact that other top CCP leaders are also using their positions to make multimillionaires of themselves, their wives, and their children and grandchildren does not make his own conduct any less illegal, and it should not earn Bo any sympathy just because he overplayed his hand in the succession struggle and thus became one of the minority of the elite actually held to account for his actions.

Bo’s life sentence, announced yesterday by the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court, has been described by many as surprisingly harsh, but in fact Bo has received fairly normal service from the Chinese justice system. The rules for defendants have always been clear, and the key principle in sentencing is “leniency for those who confess, severity for those who resist.” Bo behaved in the dock much as he had in his leadership of Dalian and Chongqing: a bit too sure of himself, a bit too noisy, a bit too reluctant to accept that anyone had the authority to rein him in. His courtroom display may have been entertaining, but it was the opposite of the kind of extreme humility required for a chance of receiving a lighter sentence.

The life sentence is for accepting bribes, and running concurrently will be a 15-year sentence for embezzlement and a seven-year term for abuse of power. Some minor elements of the bribery charges were found to be not proven, but apart from that, the judgement ignores all Bo’s protests about his wife Gu Kailai’s evidence being pre-recorded and inadmissible owing to her mental state, as well as his inability to cross-examine other witnesses in open court.

In doing this, the court has in fact treated Bo the same as the vast majority of criminal defendants in China, who commonly find that challenging the prosecution’s evidence only makes things worse for themselves, and for their lawyer, if they belong to the minority which has one. It has been said that, since he maintained a not-guilty plea on most charges throughout the trial, Bo is now likely to appeal, but in a legal system where judges’ continued careers partly depend on keeping down the proportion of verdicts appealed and the proportion of successful appeals in their courts, it would be astonishing if this had any effect. Again, the ordinary punter might risk an increased sentence on appeal, but Bo need not worry about that. If former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong received only 16 years and served only 8 for bribery and embezzlement on a grand scale, despite popular opinion in Beijing favouring his execution, Bo was never seriously at risk of the death penalty.

In theory, Bo will not be eligible for early release until he has served at least 10 years, but in practice, as predicted by Bao Tong, former aide to CCP leader Zhao Ziyang, medical parole might be used as an excuse in as little as two years to move Bo out of Qincheng No.1 Prison and into the relative comfort of “house arrest”.  Much has been made of the comfortable conditions said to be provided for top CCP leaders fallen from grace in Qincheng, the “top political prisoners’ prison” in the countryside to the north of Beijing. Activist and writer Dai Qing confessed to being “pleasantly surprised” by first sight of her 20m2 en-suite cell, while fellow Qincheng alumnus Bao Tong compares it to a 5-star hotel.

It wasn’t always such a benign place, though; Wei Jingsheng’s famous 1979 essay, “A 20th-Century Bastille”, laid out in coruscating detail the role played by the prison apparatus in general and that establishment in particular in the ruling party’s retention of basic civil liberties as the gift of the authorities, bestowed on some citizens and denied to others as group after inconvenient group was labelled as “enemies of the people”. Wei himself served some of his 15-year sentence for Democracy Wall activism in Qincheng, including eight and a half years in solitary confinement.

None of the past horrors of Qincheng will come near Bo, although he has been deprived of all political rights for life. While he still had those rights, not to mention a privileged platform from which to influence events in China, he never lifted a finger to try to secure ordinary citizens’ protection from persecution and unfair trials, and in fact used imprisonment on trumped-up charges and torture in Chongqing to extort money from private businesspeople under the pretext of a crackdown on organized crime.

In an online letter attributed to him, Bo seems to compare himself to his father, the revolutionary general Bo Yibo, who overcame several periods of imprisonment, including during the Cultural Revolution, to reach the rank of Vice-Premier. CCP leaders often do this, wrapping themselves in the heroic mantle of the Long March generation despite the fact that they were born when the revolution was all but over and have never had to struggle for anything in their lives, unless it was to get from one highly privileged position into an even more privileged one.

The five-star treatment at Qincheng seems unlikely to shake Bo’s invincible sense of entitlement now. But as he has also been sentenced to forfeiture of his personal assets, I wish every success to the forensic accountants pursuing those funds. Perhaps they will yet manage to bring the next generation of the Bo dynasty, Bo’s and Gu Kailai’s high-living son Bo Guagua, into some kind of contact with reality in a world in which it is not normal to receive as gifts a million yuan worth of free air tickets or a French chateau.

Jackie Sheehan is newly installed Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork.

Posted in Law and JusticePolitics