Part of the China by the Numbers Series
Bo Xilai is the highest-ranking Chinese leader to be on trial in decades. But, for those anxiously awaiting the verdict of the trial and trying to analyze what it means for rule of law in China, I would like to offer some special insight: don't bother. Bo's trial is a political event; his crimes are the same as those committed by almost all Chinese politicians, and were selected for the sake of convenience. As such, the trial tells us next to nothing about rule of law in China.
For those who need a quick refresher: Bo Xilai was party secretary of the city-cum-province of Chongqing, the son of a party elder, and thought to be bound for the pinnacle of political power. Gu Kaila, his wife, who is also the child of a party elder, had been a prominent lawyer. Neil Heywood, a British businessman living in China who seems to have been closely related to the family's business dealings, was found dead in a hotel in Chongqing in November 2011. "Overconsumption of alcohol" was the official cause of death, but Bo's police chief eventually lost his cool, fleeing to the American consulate where he "told the Americans that he had been dismissed as police chief after confronting Mr. Bo with his suspicions of a link between his boss's family and Mr. Heywood's death, and that he feared for his own life." Subsequently, both Mr. Bo and Ms. Gu were arrested. Ms. Gu was convicted of murder and received a suspended death sentence on August 20th. Mr. Bo's trial has just ended and though he put up a feisty defense, it seems likely he will receive a sentence similar to his wife's. Mr. Bo's trial tells us next to nothing about rule of law in China for many reasons. I will address two here.
First, the proceedings have been remarkably transparent, with the court even microblogging the records of the trial. But, as Prof. Tong of the East China University of Political Science and Law recently noted, there is a pattern by which trials of high-ranking Chinese leaders are far more transparent than average criminal trials. In Bo's case, it is partly a propaganda effort, designed to erode his popularity through sordid details of affairs and opulence. The trial can afford to be reasonably open because Bo is probably even guiltier than most high-level Chinese politicians of the crimes he has been charged with: bribery, abuse of power, and corruption. Even in China, Bo's style of governance stood out as particularly heavy-handed and evidence of corruption is not hard to come by since Bo and his family, probably like most Chinese leaders, led a lavish lifestyle well-beyond the means of his salary (though, his real crime was not keeping a low profile). While Bo Xilai earned about $1,600 a month, his son, Bo Guagua, was dropping $100k for a domain name (guagua.com), more than $100k for a single trip to Africa, and somewhere upwards of $400k on tuition at Harrow, Oxford, Harvard, and now Columbia Law. Sure, his mom had been a successful lawyer, but Chinese lawyers in the 1990s did not make the kind of money that pays for a place in Oxford with "taps of gold, a concierge and a small vineyard". In contrast to the relative openness of Mr. Bo's trial, it is likely that China's courts will continue to "handle cases involving ordinary defendants and parties in a secretive and covert manner". The value of transparency in the judicial process is that it helps protects the innocent. Even the least impartial courts can afford to selectively provide transparency when the evidence is strong and the trial is as much about discrediting the defendant as convicting him.
Second, Bo had a lawyer; in fact, an entire legal defense team, headed by Li Guifang. His preferred choice of lawyer, Gu Yushu, was not allowed to represent him, but he is still lucky by the dismal standards of Chinese criminal courts. As the graph below demonstrates, less than half of Chinese criminal suspects are defended by lawyers and "[t]he ratio is worse in some provincial-level administrative regions where only about 12 percent of criminal cases had lawyers representing suspect." Many average Chinese cannot afford lawyers and even when they can, many lawyers are reluctant or unwilling to take criminal cases. Even when defendants are represented by lawyers, judicial institutions may "deny them basic defense prerogatives such as gathering evidence, meeting their clients in detention, producing witnesses and experts in courts, cross-examining prosecution witnesses, and having access to complete court files."
Some foreign critics have called the Bo Xilai trial a forgone conclusion or argued that it was simply a show trial. Yet, in this sense it is actually representative, considering that conviction rates in Chinese criminal courts are generally above 99 percent. But no matter what Jinan Intermediate court tweets, China's criminal law system will only reflect real improvement when average criminal suspects can expect to receive reasonably impartial trials.