You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Don't the Chinese Know How to Stage a Show Trial Anymore?

On first glance, the just-concluded trial of disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai on corruption charges appears to be every bit the sham most assumed it would be. Bo Xilai’s spectacular downfall last year was a massive embarrasment for the ruling Communist Party. Conviction is foreordained. State-run media blatantly characterized Bo as already guilty. Full transcripts of the proceedings were not released.

On the other hand, partial transcripts of the proceedings were released. Bo was given the opportunity to cross-examine several witnesses. A microblog posted continual updates, capturing the imaginations of millions of Chinese readers. There have even been juicy details, such as Bo’s allegation that his wife, Gu Kailai, and a police official, Wang Lijun, had an affair—and that Gu once brought Wang’s shoes to her and Bo’s home(!). All in all, the whole thing was much more transparent than most politicized Chinese trials, or indeed most Chinese trials. “This is the most open trial of its kind, certainly the most open among the ones we have seen recently,” a Chinese law professor told The New York Times. “[Bo] seems to be speaking his mind, judging from his speech and the words he used.” He added, “The whole court is controlled by Beijing.”

Why did China let Bo have something like his day in the sun? “There are more complicated political calculations,” Carl Minzner, a professor at Fordham Law School who specializes in Chinese legal development, told me. “With Bo, you’re dealing with a neo-leftist figure who has significant popular support, at least among segments of society.” Bo’s so-called “Chongqing model,” named for the municipality he ran until his arrest in the spring of 2012, included not just cracking down on organized crime and heavily subsidizing housing but also holding socialist singalongs and even sending mass “red text messages.” While China’s last round of leaders, who exited over the past year, looked askance at this, new President Xi Jinping is actively citing Marx and Mao with an enthusiasm little seen since the advent of “state capitalism” in China three decades ago. China’s leaders, in other words, cannot be too opposed either to Bo or to Bo’s governing ideology, because they have essentially adopted that ideology.

“Also,” Minzner continued, “among the elite he’s a princeling”—the son of one of the Communist Party’s so-called Eight Elders—“and he’s one of the top persons deeply connected with others at the top of the system.” They, too, take care of their own.

And finally, China’s leaders, in this high-profile trial (which even the dissident Ai Weiwei identified as an event people should be watching for evidence of mistreatment), likely wished to showcase their relative “fairness.” Though Minzner isn't sure, and Minzner compared it to the Gang of Four trial of 1981, which was actually televised, and which served as expiation for the Cultural Revolution of the mid-'70s. “The state was clearly using that trial to send a very significant set of signals: that we are going to be dealing with people who go against us in a different way from the Cultural Revolution,” Minzner said.

But China’s leaders might look back on this openness as a mistake. As New York University Law School’s Jerry Cohen points out in a South China Morning Post op-ed, millions of Chinese now know what a less-unfair trial, complete with cross-examination, looks like. “Bo's subsequent spirited and lengthy interrogation of live witnesses—Xu Ming, Wang Lijun, and Wang Zhenggang, and his repudiation and ridicule of their testimony, indicated the type of experience Gu had been spared and the extent to which her testimony might have been modified or rebutted on cross-examination,” Cohen writes, in reference to Bo’s wife being permitted not to appear. “That his questioning of Xu had bolstered Bo’s defence was immediately acknowledged by party propaganda officials, who instructed the domestic media not to headline what they called ‘the 20 questions.’”

This “well-publicised display,” Cohen adds, “undoubtedly made a major impact on a public unaccustomed to the adversary system that China has taken steps towards introducing but seldom implemented. This alone justified Xinhua’s boast that the case constitutes ‘a landmark in the history of Chinese jurisprudence.’” Indeed, a Party reacquainting itself with Marx may want to remember the part about ironies of history.

Follow @marcatracy

This post has been updated