Transparency With Chinese Characteristics
By Lijia Zhang
The whole saga of Bo Xilai, a former political star, contains all the
ingredients for a thriller: power, political intrigues, sex and
murder. It is little wonder that his trial, which ended on Monday,
captivated the nation.
As expected, it turned out to be stage managed in many ways, from its
location, to the timing (coming before an important meeting in
November) to the selection of the police escorts (believed to be
basketball players) towering over Bo, who is himself fairly tall.
The biggest surprise was its transparency: Jinan court transcribed the
proceedings through microblog in Sina Weibo. Although the
transcription was selective, such openness is unprecedented in China.
Why? On one hand, I’d like to give our authorities the credit for
taking a step forward towards legal openness; on the other hand, I guess
there maybe other less honorable reasons.
Our government might have felt obliged, given the massive attention the
case has been receiving from the world media ever since Wang Lijun,
Bo’s police chief in Chongqing, attempted to seek asylum at a US consulate. And then Bo’s wife Gu Kailai was of course implicated in murdering a
Our new president Xi Jinping might have liked to use the trial to showcase
his vigorous anti-corruption campaign as he vowed to catch corrupt
officials, both ‘tigers and fliers’.
I also suspect that such openness as well as Bo’s decent chance to
defend himself was the result of a careful behind the door maneuvering
by the regime and his supporters in high places. This case must be
the most difficult one for the Chinese Communist Party since the
trial of the so-called Gang of Four in 1980. Bo, a son of a top revolutionary
leader, is caught in a web of different factions, interests groups
The Chinese leaders are always shrouded in secrecy. This trial
offered a rare glimpse to the private lives of those very privileged:
jet-set trips to far flung places, exotic meat and a $3.2 million
villa in France. But is Bo more corrupt than other officials? Most
ordinary Chinese don’t think so.
Sixteen years ago, as a researcher for Newsweek, I was sent to Dalian in north-east China, when Bo served as the city’s mayor.
We’d heard that Bo was going to take up a post in the central government. Everywhere I went, people
sang their mayor’s praise because he had improved their lives. Bo
still has plenty of fans today. (and plenty of enemies as well). It
seems to me that the trial has not changed their mind about him.
Will this trial mark a turning point in China’s legal history? I
doubt it. In this case, transparency served its purpose. After 1980,
we have not seen other televised images of disgraced leaders. But
China will have to move towards the rule of law. For one thing, the
Chinese people now hold higher expectations.