Chinas Bo factor

Written by Anurag Viswanath | Updated: Aug 30 2013, 09:29am hrs
In China, in a year that has seen an upsurge of reality television shows such as Stars in Danger, Celebrity Splash, I Am A Singer and Superstar China made by television channels across Chinas provinces, comes the biggest reality show of them allthe ongoing trial of disgraced Chinese Communist Party leader, Bo Xilai, in the northern city of Jinan (Shandong province) for embezzling public funds. The so-called corruption trial is actually a political trial, exceptional in the sense that it is a reality show, edited by the Partybut one with a script that has twists and turns, including the sensational revelation of a love triangle on the last day of the trial.

Sinologist Joseph Fewsmith once noted, relevant in the immediate context, that Politics is always in season in China, but the years in which China convenes its quinquennial party congresses are even more political. As if writ in stone, Bo fell from grace in 2012coinciding with the fifth generation leadership transition and the 18th Party Congress (held every five years) in November 2012.

But how credible is the case

There are intriguing bits in the case that has captured public imagination. Bos once-upon-a-time close confidante Wang Lijun (his police chief in Chongqing) turned against him and sought political asylum at the United States consulate in Chengdu in 2012. Before anybody knew, Bo was asked to step down, and his wife placed in custody.

It has been reported that Bo fainted 27 times during his brutal interrogation in the past year. Bos wife, Gu Kailai, is known to be of fragile physical and mental health. According to rumours, she suffered heavy-metal poisoning in 2006. Recently, Gu testified against Bo, but critics question its veracitypossibly pressure or plea bargaining Gu has been convicted of having British businessman Neil Heywood killed. Heywood was allegedly a middleman who brokered money-laundering deals for the family.

In court, Bo has spiritedly dismissed Gus testimony as laughable, and ex-confidante Wang Lijuns testimony as to have him as a key witness means that the law loses credibility. Xu Ming, an entrepreneur who allegedly pumped money to Bos family, footing bills for the familys expensive vacations, and a villa at Cannes, is also a key witness. Xu Ming is also a common factor between ex-premier Wen Jiabao and Bo. It is a well-known fact that Wen and Bo are sworn enemies; according to a recent New York Times report, not only has Xu invested in companies owned by Wens relatives, but at one time dated his daughter.

An important (but overlooked) factor is that Bo was the only strong contender for president Xi Jinpings current job. According to unconfirmed reports, Bo lost out to Xi by a fraction of a fraction, and by a sleight of hand. Until he fell from grace (or was out-manoeuvred), he was considered the quintessential golden boyas the party chief of Chongqing municipalityelegant, articulate and westernised, on the ascendant, who could do no wrong.

Bo was the first to upset the internal dynamicsthe status quo within the Party, cutting its conservatism and hierarchy to stake an open claim for leadership simply by going to the people, democracy styleexcept that in a one-party system, this was probably too much, too soon.

Bo is also Chinas political royalty, due to lineage. In a political and economic system knotted around the keel of guanxi (network or connections, e.g. family, high-school and university), Bo Xilai was born with the proverbial golden spoon in his mouth. He is a princeling, off-spring of a well-respected, powerful Party Elder Bo Yibo, once a finance minister who served under the taciturn Mao Zedong and was purged in 1966 but returned to the hustings, rehabilitated by reformer Deng Xiaoping.

Unconfirmed reports say that Yibo played king-maker during former president Jiang Zemins time (1989-2002). It is also said that the senior Bo was higher in the party hierarchy than current president Xi Jinpings father; Xi is also a princeling and hails from a privileged party lineage.

Of course, the trial is partly the outcome of Bos princeling aka royalty status amongst competing elites who are equals. Chinas top political players largely hail from privileged backgrounds connected by long family connections and guanxi-ed to boot. While Jiang Zemin explicitly and publicly placed his trust in Xi Jinpings political and economic reforms this July, he has been quiet on the trialowing perhaps to the fact that Bos father supported him at a critical juncture.

In this sense, the public trial is unprecedented, unlike previous casualties of top leaders falling out in power struggleslike the late Chen Xitong (former party secretary, Beijing) arrested in 1995 and Chen Liangyu (former party secretary, Shanghai) arrested in 2006who virtually sank without a trace, Bos trial is tied, constrained and hedged by the interplay of several factorshis charisma, phenomenal popularity with the masses, political royalty status sealed by impeccable guanxi.

Bo has his backers who are raising the stakes. It is a matter of open conjecture that the high-profile leaks in western media in 2012 relating to ex-president Hu Jintao, ex-premier Wen Jiabao and others (including Xi Jinping) cache of riches could only result from an internal leak.

Bo is Chinas expensive reality showa political milestone that hints at the future map of Chinese politics. One, if he is convicted of corruption, it will set a precedentcorruption is hardly a monopoly of Bo among Chinas top leadersand more heads could roll. Two, in the past, political adversaries were bumped off, but clearly this is no longer possible or desirable. Recourse to the legal system has thus proved a turning point. Bos trial shows that witnesses are rolling in and he is being given a chance to defend himself, a first in Chinese politics. Three, this signals the end of the era of the Party supremo, the strongman, and points instead at plural competitive politics. For one, there is no consensus within the Party on how to best deal with Bo. His trial involves high stakes for Chinas elite, part of a single but divided political party with allegiances, networks and factions at play.

Bos grace under pressure in the globally telecast trial is probably what his millions of supporters need to see. The verdict is due very soonwhichever way it goes, Bo (and his legacy) will not bow out without a fight.

The author is a Singapore-based sinologist and is currently visiting fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal