Bo Xilai’s True Crime

After more than a year in detention, Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party chief of China’s Chongqing city, has been officially charged with accepting an “extremely large amount” of bribes, embezzling public funds, and abusing public office. But, while the charges may sound severe, Bo’s situation may not be as serious as it appears.

Indeed, contrary to the indictment’s language, the ¥20 million ($3.2 million) in bribes that Bo allegedly accepted are relatively modest for China, where village chiefs can rake in billions. While accepting a bribe of more than ¥100,000 carries a punishment ranging from ten years to life imprisonment, Bo seems to have escaped the death penalty, given that the indictment mentions no “aggravating circumstances.” The same is true for the ¥5 million of public funds that Bo allegedly embezzled.

Moreover, although “aggravating circumstances” (and “heavy losses to national interests”) were cited in the indictment for abuse of public office, that crime’s maximum punishment is only a seven-year prison sentence. As a result, even combining the punishments for all three crimes, Bo’s worst-case scenario is life imprisonment.

Perhaps most revealing, Bo has apparently escaped any charges relating to the widely publicized murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. Last August’s judgment against Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, set the stage for this outcome, excluding any mention of Bo – even a reference to the fact that he is her husband.

The Party Disciplinary Committee’s report on the subject last September was less forgiving, stating that Bo “made a serious mistake and bore heavy responsibility in the Heywood murder.” While the public may never find out exactly what happened over the last ten months, it is not difficult to imagine that Party leaders seeking to keep Bo off death row deliberately eliminated any official mention of a connection between him and Heywood’s murder.

Another glaring omission from Bo’s indictment is the “singing red, striking black” campaign that he employed while vying for a coveted seat on the Politburo Standing Committee. Despite the popularity of Bo’s crusade – in which he promoted neo-Maoist ethics by reviving revolutionary songs and launching a large-scale crackdown on organized crime and corruption – the campaign ignored due process, and the resurgence of Mao-era propaganda raised fears, particularly among reformers and intellectuals, of cultural and political regression.

The World’s Opinion Page

Help support Project Syndicate’s mission.

Donate

While there are many potential explanations for excluding the campaign’s excesses from the indictment, the most plausible seems to be lack of agreement among Party leaders that such activities should be officially condemned. Indeed, despite the country’s shift to state capitalism, Marxist slogans have retained huge appeal, owing to rapid growth in inequality. President Xi Jinping’s patrimony – he is the son of revolutionaries – further impedes the elimination of Communist rhetoric (though it rarely influences officials’ actions).

Bo’s situation reflects the realities of Chinese politics more than it does his own actions. After all, as anyone familiar with China knows, while corruption charges can be ruinous for low-level bureaucrats, they are generally regarded as petty misdemeanors for officials at Bo’s level.

So what was Bo’s real crime? A recent editorial by the state-run Xinhua news agency may offer some clues. The article details the need for local governments to defend the central government’s authority and execute its policies unwaveringly, reinforcing the point with a Tang-era poem (“To repay the honor bestowed upon me by the emperor, I shall fight to death for the emperor”). Only such a unified approach, the editorial explains, can enable the country to realize the “Chinese dream.”

This suggests that Bo’s most egregious offense was not corruption or murder, but stepping out of line during a critical leadership transition – a time when China’s leaders are extremely careful to uphold the appearance of unity across all levels of government. Bo disrupted the system, and now he will pay the price. He will not have to die for the emperor, but his case shows that China’s current political system has much in common with the imperial past.

http://prosyn.org/czUhpkS;
  1. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

    Angela Merkel’s Endgame?

    The collapse of coalition negotiations has left German Chancellor Angela Merkel facing a stark choice between forming a minority government or calling for a new election. But would a minority government necessarily be as bad as Germans have traditionally thought?

  2. Trump Trade speech Bill Pugliano/Getty Images .

    Preparing for the Trump Trade Wars

    In the first 11 months of his presidency, Donald Trump has failed to back up his words – or tweets – with action on a variety of fronts. But the rest of the world's governments, and particularly those in Asia and Europe, would be mistaken to assume that he won't follow through on his promised "America First" trade agenda.

  3. A GrabBike rider uses his mobile phone Bay Ismoyo/Getty Images

    The Platform Economy

    While developed countries in Europe, North America, and Asia are rapidly aging, emerging economies are predominantly youthful. Nigerian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese young people will shape global work trends at an increasingly rapid pace, bringing to bear their experience in dynamic informal markets on a tech-enabled gig economy.

  4. Trump Mario Tama/Getty Images

    Profiles in Discouragement

    One day, the United States will turn the page on Donald Trump. But, as Americans prepare to observe their Thanksgiving holiday, they should reflect that their country's culture and global standing will never recover fully from the wounds that his presidency is inflicting on them.

  5. Mugabe kisses Grace JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

    How Women Shape Coups

    In Zimbabwe, as in all coups, much behind-the-scenes plotting continues to take place in the aftermath of the military's overthrow of President Robert Mugabe. But who the eventual winners and losers are may depend, among other things, on the gender of the plotters.

  6. Oil barrels Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Getty Images

    The Abnormality of Oil

    At the 2017 Abu Dhabi Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, the consensus among industry executives was that oil prices will still be around $60 per barrel in November 2018. But there is evidence to suggest that the uptick in global growth and developments in Saudi Arabia will push the price as high as $80 in the meantime.

  7. Israeli soldier Menahem Kahana/Getty Images

    The Saudi Prince’s Dangerous War Games

    Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is working hard to consolidate power and establish his country as the Middle East’s only hegemon. But his efforts – which include an attempt to trigger a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon – increasingly look like the work of an immature gambler.