- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is FP's Asia editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington, D.C. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
This year, the Mid-Autumn Festival, which traditionally celebrated the harvest and is now one of China’s most popular holidays, takes place from Thursday, Sept. 19 to Sunday, Sept. 22. It’s a period when many Chinese travel, the mainland stock market closes, and, like in the United States over Thanksgiving or Easter, there tends to be less interest in the news.
Sept. 22 also happens to be the day when a verdict in the case of disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai will be announced, according to the microblog of the Intermediate People’s Court in Jinan, the eastern Chinese city where Bo’s trial wrapped up several weeks ago. The verdict — on charges of bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power — will cap the 18-month downfall of Bo, and he is almost certain to be found guilty. Formerly seen as one of China’s most promising politicians, Bo was removed from his position not long after police chief Wang Lijun, a close aide of his, fled to the U.S. consulate in the southwest Chinese city of Chengdu, seeking asylum.
It’s likely not coincidental that Bo’s verdict will be handed down during a holiday (and a weekend, no less): the length and terms of Bo’s sentence is one of the most sensitive elements of the entire case. A light sentence will encourage grumbling among those who believe in the Communist Party’s vilification of Bo, and will also potentially provide an opening for his political comeback — an eventuality one assumes the country’s top leadership does not want.
Meanwhile, a heavy sentence — like life in prison or even death — will only enrage Bo sympathizers, some of whom feel that Bo’s crimes were not any worse than many sitting officials. It could also worry many in the high levels of the government and the party; not only other princelings — sons and daughters of powerful officials — but also those who feel that reaching a top rank in the party should guarantee a certain level of immunity. In the 1960s and 1970s, during Mao Zedong’s anarchic Cultural Revolution, many high-ranking Chinese officials were brutally tortured and killed, including President Liu Shaoqi. It is not stabilizing for the Communist Party to alienate its own by hinting at a return to Mao’s chaos. Politician Cheng Kejie, who fell from power in 2000, is thought to be the only former member of the Politburo, China’s elite 25-member decision-making body, to have been executed since 1978. And Bo is far more high-profile than Cheng ever was. Execute Bo, and he could become a martyr.
Faced with such a tough and sensitive decision, it’s no surprise that Chinese officials decided to bury it during a holiday weekend. Indeed, this is not the first time Beijing has taken this approach. Two days after Christmas in 2007, Chinese police seized prominent dissident Hu Jia; they officially detained him three days later, "escalating a crackdown on dissent during the West’s holiday season," the New York Times reported at the time. Beijing sentenced top Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison on Christmas Day 2009, and Ai Weiwei’s 81-day detention began on a Sunday morning. (This pattern holds true with news of interest only to domestic audiences as well.)
It’s not a Chinese phenomenon. Companies carefully choose the times they release sensitive information to the market. And government agencies around the world engage in the practice known as "news dumping." The term often refers to dropping sensitive information on a Friday afternoon, when many sensible people who might otherwise be concerned with, say, the White House releasing a list of 17 presidential pardons, are instead daydreaming about the first martini of the weekend.
It’s hard to say how effective news dumps are, whether in the United States or China: Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize from prison, shining light on Chinese human rights abuses, and Ai, a far more effective promoter than the Communist Party is dampener, has become an international star. But it’s a safe bet that when Bo’s verdict is announced on Sunday, some Chinese who would otherwise be concerned with his fate will instead be preoccupied with having to go back to work.