News / Asia

China’s Biggest Corruption Trial in Decades Remains a Mystery

In a file picture taken on March 5, 2012, Chongqing mayor Bo Xilai attends the opening session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
In a file picture taken on March 5, 2012, Chongqing mayor Bo Xilai attends the opening session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
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William Ide
— Disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai could face trial in China in a matter of days or weeks. Although Bo’s case is one of China’s biggest political scandals in decades, very little is known about the crimes he is accused of committing. And legal analysts say it is unlikely that his trial will reveal more details.

Bo Xilai vanished from the public limelight over a year ago.  The former Chongqing party chief was stripped of his official posts and kicked out of the party, following the revelation and later conviction of his wife in the murder of a British businessman.
 
Police official Wang Lijun, Bo’s top enforcer, was also tried and found guilty of involvement in the murder. The scandal hit just as China was preparing for a once-in-a-decade leadership reshuffle.
 
Now, a court in eastern Shandong province is preparing to try the former political star on three major crimes: bribery, abuse of power and corruption. Few other details were given, but that is not surprising, said He Jiahong, a legal scholar at Beijing’s Renmin University.
 
“In China, the criminal trial stage is not very substantial," said He. "It's just a nominal proceeding of the whole proceeding to make a decision about the case. Especially for this kind of highly political cases, the decision has already been made, but then they have to go through the trial. This is not just the problem in Bo Xilai’s case, it’s kind of a feature of criminal trials in China now, especially political cases.”
 
More details could be revealed during the trial, but it is unlikely the hearing will last long, said He.
 
“I think that maybe just a couple of hours, or one day. I think two days are the most but it all depends on the defendant's attitude," he said. "I can only guess with my common sense that there should be witnesses, but they are just given the written testimony or records of the interview or questioning, so the public prosecutor will introduce the testimony or the evidence.”
 
One possible key witness, legal analysts say, is one of China’s wealthiest businessmen, Xu Ming. Xu’s ties with Bo stretch back more than two decades and he was detained last year, just before Bo was removed from office.
 
In 2010, Forbes estimated that Xu was worth $650 million.
 
Political analyst Joseph Cheng of the City University of Hong Kong said it is unlikely the trial will reveal any substantial details about the network that aided Bo in his alleged corruption. The Bo case appears to be following the same familiar pattern of other high-ranking leaders accused of corruption, said Cheng

“One, they all keep very quiet and acknowledge their guilt; two, they do not offer information on their superiors nor on their corruption networks; and three, they therefore get a fairly light sentence," he said.

Official media have provided some details about Bo’s alleged crimes. Reports last year said that Bo had had sexual affairs with a number of women and that he used his family to funnel in bribes from others.
 
State reports also said Bo abused his power and tried to cover up his wife’s murder of businessman Neil Heywood. Official accounts from the trial of Bo’s former enforcer, police official Wang Lijun, accuse Bo of beating Wang and stripping him of his post when he confronted Bo about his wife’s involvement in the murder.  
 
Reports say Bo extorted as much as one million U.S. dollars and accepted bribes worth more than three million. His alleged crimes stretch back more than a decade, when he was mayor of the eastern coastal city of Dalian.
 
The crimes Bo stands accused of could trigger the death penalty, but legal analysts say that is unlikely. He Bing, a legal scholar at Beijing’s China Political Science and Law University, predicts he will probably be punished with life in prison.
 
"t is not likely that he will get the death penalty, because from Chen Liangyu to Chen Xitong on to other members of the politburo, they have never been given the death penalty.”
 
China’s new leader Xi Jinping has pledged to crack down on corruption and go after both tigers and flies - high and low-ranking officials. But analysts say the fact that the case will likely reveal little information about corruption beyond Bo, highlights the weaknesses of China’s anti-corruption campaign and prosecution system.

Legal scholar He Jiahong said the inability to tackle corruption is partly because senior officials remain largely beyond the reach of prosecutors while they are in office.
 
“In other words their corruption, no matter is taking bribes or embezzlement, was discovered after they have committed that for ten years, or even more, maybe twenty years, one reason is because they were in power, so it would be difficult to discover those offenses, especially when they were holding the power in the locality, it would be very difficult for the local prosecutor or even the party disciplinary persons to discover the cases," he said.

Cheng said that the inability to prosecute corrupt top officials is partly the result of China’s political system, where the Communist Party remains above the law. Even in Bo’s case, the senior political officials were consulted on the case’s merits and political impact before it goes to trial, said Cheng.

“This is obviously a political case and the party's top leaders had to make the decisions, it was formerly reported that the Party Inspection Committee presented a report on the Bo Xilai case to the politburo and the politburo of the party made the final decision," he said. "The case then, goes to court.”
 
While China’s President Xi has made fighting corruption a top priority, Cheng said Xi still has to consolidate his political power and authority within the party. That means he had to ensure he had a consensus among senior party members that Bo’s trial would not have an impact on factions within the party and the government’s overall stability.

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