Prison may unlock a political opportunity for Bo Xilai

China's leaders are hoping that a life sentence will solve the political problem of Bo Xilai. But if things go pear-shaped for the Chinese economy, Bo Xilai may reemerge as a viable socialist alternative.

The conviction and life sentence handed down to the charismatic former Chongqing boss Bo Xilai for corruption and embezzlement seemingly brings an end to the political career of the most popular Chinese politician in a generation.

Once seen as a sure thing for the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo, and even a candidate for President, the prospect that he will now spend the rest of his life in jail is clear political comfort for the current leadership team under Xi Jinping.

President Xi detested Bo’s attempts to build his own power base founded on personal charisma, a can-do governing attitude that openly and brutally used all the coercive tools of Chongqing to ‘get results’, and a return to a Maoist-type of extreme nationalism and socialism. When the life sentence was handed down last Sunday, China’s compliant state media trumpeted the verdict as a blow against official corruption, and a warning for other Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members that the law would sooner or later catch up with them. A life sentence appears as final as it gets – except for execution, obviously.

But where there is life, there is hope (so to speak), and one gets the sense that we may not have heard the last of Bo. If China turns its back on genuine economic reform and regresses politically, then Bo might just find that he is the man many will turn to and will be given a second political life. If so, he will be back with a vengeance – and with hyped-up authority.

First things first. Bo has launched an appeal against his life sentence. In China’s politicised judicial system, less than 1 per cent of appeals succeed. In such a high-profile case, the verdict would have been decided long ago; there is no way that the verdict and sentence will be overturned. If this happened, it would be evidence that the rulers will have lost control of the court system, and the current leaders are not about to let that happen.

What about the case itself? Chinese leaders have been assiduously portraying the case as simply one about corruption and a sign of President Xi’s determination to clean up the graft in officialdom. Tales of Bo’s lavish lifestyle when he was still leading Chongqing suggest that he is the beneficiary of ill-gotten gains. Yet one must remember that he was charged with receiving bribes amounting to $US3.2 million and embezzlement of a further $US1.2 million, amounting to US$4.4 million all up.

This is nothing to scoff at, but this must be put in perspective. The former Premier Wen Jiabao and his family are worth an astonishing $US2.7 billion. A Bloomberg investigation last year revealed that President Xi’s family are worth around $US376 million, with his sister Qi Qiaoqiao alone worth US$288 million – even if there is no evidence that Xi has himself engaged in graft. The point is that a life sentence for stealing $US4.4 million of public money is clearly a disproportionate punishment. As one Chinese blogger argued sarcastically, Bo should be praised and rewarded for only stealing $US4.4 million after three decades in Chinese politics. 

Moreover, in defending himself, Bo raised many internal party goings-on and other matters which amount to airing of the Party’s dirty laundry. Normally, the public and media would be barred from witnessing the proceedings of such as case. Yet, Bo’s case was touted as a historic ‘open trial’ to showcase the country’s judicial transparency, with transcripts of court proceedings immediately posted online each day. The CCP would have been well aware that domestic and international press was following and reporting the trial closely. But this was no baby step towards judicial reform in China; it was a political show trial, through and through.

An unrepentant Bo received a harsh sentence as everyone expected. Yet the show trial might yet come back to haunt the current Party leaders if things go pear-shaped for the Chinese economy and its tentative and possibly failing reform process in the future. The vast majority of officials being tried for corruption break down in court, express remorse and beg for mercy – knowing that the guilty verdict is pre-determined.

But Bo was not just defiant, unbowed and unapologetic but also charming, persuasive and eloquent when it came to his defence. He spoke compellingly about the unjust motivation of his political enemies now in power – that his injustice represented the injustice of well-connected ‘have’ versus ‘unconnected ‘have nots’.

That Bo in reality is a ‘princeling’ and certainly not a clean one matters not a jot. Protesters held up signs outside the courtroom with slogans such as ‘don’t let the corrupt try the clean’ in full view of national media. Blog sites in and out of his former power base of Chongqing suggest that he won the public relations war, and it was the current rulers who are being perceived as corrupt, heavy-handed and intent on making Bo a scapegoat for selfish political reasons.

In the foreseeable future, Bo will serve his sentence in the relatively comfortable quarters at Qincheng jail, which has become a de facto holding house for convicted corrupt officials. Like political prisoners who never say die, Bo will have time to reflect, plan, scheme and read. He will have access to and closely follow the news through access to television, newspapers and even the Internet.

Before his imprisonment and as head of Chongqing, Bo developed a reputation as the leading figure in China’s so-called ‘New Left’, embracing a patriotic and nationalistic fervour that is as close to a return to Mao Zedong’s socialism as one can get in modern China. Where others see a ruthlessness and peerless capacity to elevate oneself above the law, his supporters praise his can-do attitude and proven record of crushing the local mafia (even if many believe he and his cohorts took the mafia’s place).

Although his lifestyle was lavish and filled with privilege, Bo railed against rising inequality with campaigns advocating a more even distribution of national wealth – a return to true market-socialism as he saw it. In a time when China is now the most unequal country in all of Asia by distribution of income – and CCP members are the primary beneficiaries of economic growth – such rhetoric found a receptive audience.    

If Chinese attitudes change to the ruling Party’s ‘slowly, slowly’ pseudo reform – perhaps through the revelation of further major corruption scandals implicating senior officials or else an economic slowdown causing urban elites to demand a change of national direction – then Bo could well represent a socialist alternative.

Remember that a stint in prison is often the pathway to future political success in such volatile authoritarian systems. Indeed, Bo Xilai’s father, Bo Yibo, was branded a ‘counter revolutionary’ during Mao’s Cultural Revolution from 1965-1968 and sent to Qincheng jail for some time – the very same prison that will likely house his son.

Following Mao’s death, Bo Yibo returned to power and became one of the so-called ‘Eight Immortals’, which included Deng Xiaoping. Supporting the economic reforms during the Deng era, Bo the elder eventually held senior positions including Deputy Prime Minister, Chairman of the State Economic Commission, and Vice-Chairman of the Central Advisory Commission of the CCP.

Bo the younger has clearly inherited his determination from his father, and will hope to share his father’s political good fortune as well. The fact that Bo Yibo stood for economic (but not political) reform, while Bo Xilai has somewhat regressive ideas is beside the point. If a neo-Maoism rears its head again in China, then one can bet that Bo Xilai will once again become a powerful national figure.

Dr John Lee is the Michael Hintze Fellow and adjunct associate professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is also a non-resident senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC and a director of the Kokoda Foundation in Canberra.

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