The Show Must Go On

Purging a top Chinese official doesn't always go as planned.


Sometime soon, disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai will face his accusers in a trial as fair and impartial as loaded dice. Charged with bribery, abuse of power, and corruption, he will almost certainly be convicted of the charges against him. The trial will cap Bo’s spectacular downfall — a saga which began in February 2012, when his right-hand-man Wang Lijun fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, and featured bizarre and fantastical revelations of intrigue, bribery, and poison.

The last major trial in the Bo saga was the August 2012 indictment of his wife Gu Kailai, who was given a suspended death sentence for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. During the half-day trial, Gu reportedly confessed, admitting: "I committed a crime that brought negative consequences to the party and the country." Gu also thanked her lawyers, the judge, and the prosecutors, who "opened the curtains a little bit, to reveal the hidden dirty secrets."

Gu’s passivity may make it seem that Chinese show trials follow the Soviet model, featuring weeping defendants pleading for leniency and reinforcing the unquestioned authority of the state. And indeed, some high-ranking Chinese officials do break down: Liu Zhijun, the former minister of railways, reportedly cried at the end of his July 2013 trial, and "had a very good attitude in confession and a strong desire to repent," according to Xinhua, China’s official news agency.

But the removal and sentencing of top Chinese officials have been messy affairs, featuring surprisingly rebellious performances from the defendants. Since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the Communist Party has only tried three officials who held power and influence comparable to Bo, and none of them marched gently into that good night.

Chen Liangyu (April 2008)

Chen, a party secretary for the municipality of Shanghai, was the last official of Bo’s rank to face trial, and his experience might be a blueprint. Like Bo, Chen was an aggressive politician who fell in part because he clashed with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, China’s president and premier respectively from 2003 to 2013, over economic policies. In a 2004 meeting of China’s Politburo, the 25-member top decision-making body, Chen "confronted Wen" and warned him that he and the cabinet "would have to ‘bear the political responsibility’" if the premier’s policies triggered unemployment and bankruptcies, according to a 2006 Newsweek article.

Chen was detained in September 2006, officially for taking bribes and for his role in a scandal over the misuse of Shanghai’s pension fund, but the real reasons probably had more to do with factional politics, wrote Cheng Li, now China research director at the Brookings Institution. While Chen was "certainly notorious for his rottenness, he was, however, only one among several Politburo members with such a reputation," noted Li.

A closed-door trial was held for Chen 18 months after his arrest. In her trial, the formerly striking Gu appeared dumpy and dejected, prompting rumors that a body double had replaced her. Chen, on the other hand, appeared calm and in control — in video of the trial, he can be seen smirking at the camera, his eyes defiant. While Chen admitted he was "partially responsible" for the scandal, he pleaded not guilty. He was sentenced to 18 years.

Chen Xitong (June 1998)

Like Bo, the unraveling of former Beijing party secretary and Politburo member Chen Xitong involved a death — in his case, the April 1995 suicide of Deputy Mayor Wang Baosen, who was accused of corruption. China’s then Party Chairman Jiang Zemin used Wang’s death as an excuse to move against Chen, who had been opposing Jiang’s policies and running the capital as his own fiefdom. Chen was detained soon after Wang took his own life.

It helped matters that Chen was generally detested in Beijing for his exuberant support of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen crackdown and for many other reasons, including his elaborate bribery requirements for real estate developments and "his broken pledge to jump from one of Beijing’s highest buildings if the city failed to win the 2000 Olympics," according to historian Bruce Gilley. But Chen also had deep ties to the family of Deng Xiaoping, at that point the most powerful man in China, and he refused to cooperate with the proceedings. "If you sentence me to death, you can get 300 coffins ready," Chen allegedly said at the time, implying that the authorities prosecuting him were equally corrupt.  

Chen was detained for nearly three years before he was officially arrested in February 1998. Embarrassingly, the court, which said he "squandered a large amount of public funds to support a corrupt and decadent life," struggled to find convincing examples of corruption to tie to him. It eventually went with "misappropriated gifts" he obtained on diplomatic duties, valued at roughly $67,000 — a list of items that included "four expensive pens, three cameras and one video camera." Sentenced to 18 years, Chen was released on medical parole in 2004. In 2012, he published a book in which he said his trial was "an absurd miscarriage of justice."

Jiang Qing (Winter 1980)

After taking power in the late 1970s, China’s then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping decided to televise the trial for the Gang of Four — a group of Chinese officials, helmed by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, blamed for the excesses of Mao’s 10-year anarchic Cultural Revolution. Bo Xilai’s charges of bribery, abuse of power, and corruption pale in comparison with that of the Gang of Four and their accomplices, which included subversion, counter-revolutionary activity, treason, and "persecuting to death" more than 34,000 people.

Most of the defendants, like in the Moscow show trials of the 1930s, "confessed to all charges, whether they were guilty of them or not," writes author Ross Terrill in his 1984 biography "Madame Mao: The White Boned Demon." He cites the example of Wu Faxian, a former People’s Liberation Army Air Force chief, who told the court that "Jiang Qing is the chief culprit," adding dejectedly, "I hate myself."

But Jiang, an actress, gave a memorable performance, lambasting the judge, jury, and witnesses for daring to accuse her of crimes. At one point, Jiang called a female judge "you bitch"; she was frog-marched from court, with the gallery applauding her forced exit. In her three-hour closing remarks, Jiang taunted the judges and "dared" them to publically execute her. The court instead sentenced Jiang to death with a two-year reprieve, a sentence that was commuted to life imprisonment in 1983. (Jiang committed suicide in 1992.)

Bo probably won’t act out at his trial: He still has more left to lose than Jiang did, including family in China and overseas whom he could protect by staying quiet. Indeed, the top Chinese officials planning Bo’s trial want to keep the spotlight firmly directed towards the defendant, and not the accusers. Nothing undermines a show trial more than peeling away the curtain, as when Jiang turned towards her former comrades-in-arms and shouted, "If I am guilty, how about you all!"

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He is on sabbatical from Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish

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