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The Bo imbroglio: Into the final stretch, but closure may prove elusive
The commuted death sentence passed yesterday on Gu Kailai clears the way for what the leadership in Beijing must hope will be the final act of the drama surrounding her husband since the flight of the former police chief of Chongqing to the US consulate in Chengdu unleashed the Bo Xilai affair.
Keeping to script. From the top-down viewpoint, it has all worked according to plan as laid out in my last blog posting. The players, notably Gu, have followed the script. The verdict was as forecast – execution was never on the cards and Gu now has two years in which to repent of her crime. After that the death penalty will be lifted and she will serve probably seven to nine years in jail.
Speculation has done the rounds that the woman who appeared in court in Hefei was actually a double. This seems unlikely precisely because she did not look like the svelte and glamorous woman in photographs from a few years back with Bo. And if the authorities had chosen to substitute a ringer, for whatever reason, surely they would have chosen somebody who looked more like the public image of Gu. But this makes a good yarn in a saga that has been notable for its wild rumours.
The big decision. Now that the criminal case over Heywood’s death has been officially cleared up – never mind about the inconsistencies and loose ends – the more important political shoe can fall in the shape of the Politburo’s final verdict on Bo. Expulsion from the Party at the end of the current investigation by the Disciplinary Commission seems most probable. What is uncertain is whether this will be accompanied by proceedings for corruption as in the case of past fallen high-fliers or whether that would be deemed too risky in view of the dangerous possible ramifications if Bo might not be as pliant as his wife in the dock. It may be safer simply to find him guilty of unspecified offences against Party discipline and to consign him to unlimited house arrest.
The ‘New Left’ pipes up. There are number of other outstanding and interlocked questions. One is the extent of the support that Bo still commands and what his fall means in policy terms. Leading members of China’s ‘New Left’ have argued that his fall marks the triumph of market forces and that the People’s Republic will undergo a wave of privatization. This seems unlikely. The private sector has been on the back foot at least since 2008 for reasons that have nothing to do with Bo. They stem from the way in which the stimulus package launched at the end of 2008 was tilted towards the state sector.
Still, as Reuters has reported today, Bo’s supporters continue to assert that the Gu case was a conspiracy to derail him and to discredit his policies. One of their online petitions has even called for the impeachment of Wen Jiabao as the prime conspirator.
This support appears to be limited to a coterie of academics and commentators who enjoy a certain limited audience on the Left in the West but, as far as one can tell, have a very minimal impact in China itself. But they now have a figurehead in Bo, even if his lifestyle hardly accorded with basic revolutionary values and his social policies in Chongqing are going to leave a nasty debt hangover.
Dealing with Wang. Then there is the dangling matter of the police chief, Wang Lijun, whose disclosure in Chengdu prevented the case from being swept under the carpet by alerting the US and, through the State Department , the British to the poisoning allegation. He knows even more secrets than Gu. Hailed as a great crime fighter for the anti-underworld campaign in Chongqing, he has also been accused by some of those he crossed of having imprisoned and tortured lawyers, business people and even other policemen as well as carrying out widespread telephone tapping as well as colluding with Gu in a scheme he later thought better of to shoot Heywood in a drug set-up. How Wang will be handled is the next task for the scriptwriters orchestrating the Bo affair who would like to have it all neatly wrapped up by the time the Party Congress meets.
Trust deficit. More broadly the difficulty for the leadership is that the kind of cut-and-dried proceedings seen at the trial in Hefei may not wash well with the Chinese people. Their cynicism can only be heightened, thus increasing the “trust deficit”, which I point to in my new book on China as one of the country’s major fault lines. Nobody will have been surprised at the way in which the legal system has come up with the officially desired outcome. But there was something distinctly old-fashioned about the case that underlines the difficulty the system has in adapting to a world of social media and far greater openness at the individual level.
Snakes’ tails. Despite that, the evidence of Heywood demanding £13 million as his cut in an aborted deal with Gu and her son underlines the extremes of the wealth gap in the People’s Republic. Also, and this was not mentioned in court of course, it raises the question of how she could put her hands on so much money when she had supposedly retired from legal practice and her husband was on a annual salary of £20,000.
But the closure on the criminal side sought by the authorities may not be as final as they hope for the reasons given above. If the road to the leadership transition at the Party Congress later this year has been smoothed out for the time being, the snakes’ tails left by the Bo affair are not dormant yet.