22 Aug 2013

Bo Xilai trial: what do we learn about Chinese politics?

It is billed as one of the biggest political trials in Chinese history. But does Bo Xilai stand any real chance of redemption?

In one of the biggest falls from grace in modern times, the man once tipped as a future leader of China should be down and out – facing trial on bribery charges whilst his wife is in prison for the murder of a British businessman.

But while Bo Xilai may be down, he is far from out. The former Communist chief staged a remarkable fightback during a court hearing today.

In his first public appearance in over a year, Mr Bo denied accepting more than one million Yuan (£116,000) from businessman Tang Xiaolin.

Opposing the charges, he insists he was framed and that his previous admissions of guilt had been forced out of him from police.

“The matter of me taking money on three occasions, as Tang Xiaolin said, does not exist,” he said, according to Jinan court updates.

“During the time I was being investigated by the Central Disciplinary Commission, I once admitted to this matter against my will. However, at the time, I had absolutely no knowledge of the nature of the matter. My mind was a total blank.”

Mr Bo’s dreams of reaching the pinnacle of political power in China were thwarted early last year when he was accused of corruption and his wife Gu was implicated in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, a family friend. She has since been jailed for life for orchestrating Mr Heywood’s murder by dripping cyanide into his drink.

The flurry of scandals marked an enormous fall for the 64-year-old Communist party chief of Chongqing who was once tipped to join the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee – making him one of the most powerful men in China.

Too maverick for his time?

But some believe the writing was on the wall long before. Dr Steve Tsang, an expert in Chinese politics at the University of Nottingham, told Channel 4 News that though Mr Bo rose rapidly in Chinese politics, he was always at risk by his approach.

“He has a ‘star’ quality. He is individual, outspoken and able to take risks. But China’s Politburo is defined by a spirit of collective leadership. You have to play by agreed rules and abide by principles that are already in place,” Dr Tsang said.

“Five years ago when Xi Jinping was preparing the ground to take over from Hu Jintao he was effectively silent. He knew the dangers or saying or doing anything that could jeopardise his succession. Bo Xilai is the opposite. He was high-profile and flamboyant, spearheading his way into leadership with force of personality.”

One last roll of the dice

Given that Chinese courtrooms come under Communist Party control and trials routinely focus on punishment rather than guilt or innocence, a sentencing is an almost foregone conclusion when the verdict of this two-day trial is announced next month.

But judging by his defiance today, the ruthless, charismatic figure at the heart of China’s biggest political scandal in decades should not be expected to go quietly.