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China

Bo Xilai's trial - last act of a major power play

The long-awaited trial of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai is underway. But analysts believe the case may be more about settling political scores than justice and that a conviction is almost certain.

Bo Xilai was one of China's top politicians. He was a member of the almost almighty politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Son of a close comrade of Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China, he belonged to the Communist aristocracy. He became party secretary of Chongqing, China's largest city with some 30 million residents and had realistic ambitions of making it into the country's highest circle of power: the Politburo Standing Committee with its seven members. But Bo's downfall in March 2012 sent shock waves across China's political establishment. In fact, it had such an impact that the transfer of power to the next generation of leaders last fall came to a temporary standstill.

Charged with bribery, abuse of power and corruption, the former high-flying politician´s trial began on Thursday, August 22, in the Intermediate People's Court of the eastern city of Jinan.

A combination of two photographs shows British businessman Neil Heywood (L) at an Aston Martin dealership in Beijing, May 26, 2010, and Gu Kailai, wife of China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai (not pictured), at a mourning held for her father-in-law Bo Yibo, former vice-chairman of the Central Advisory Commission of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing January 17, 2007. Cold-blooded killer or scapegoat, China's Lady MacBeth or over-protective mother -- Gu Kailai remains an enigma as she is tried for murder in a case that has shaken the ruling Communist Party and placed its secretive world of political privilege under intense scrutiny. The wife of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai will be tried this week in the central city of Hefei. There's little doubt a pliant court will find her guilty of murdering Neil Heywood, the British businessman who helped get her son into Harrow, the exclusive boarding school, and then into Oxford University. REUTERS/Stringer/Files (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW) CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA

Gu Kailai (R) received last year a suspended death sentence for the murder of Neil Heywood (L)

Bo "took advantage of his position to seek profits for others and accepted an 'extremely large amount' of money and properties," state agency Xinhua reported. Bo is being accused of transferring money overseas with the help of British businessman Neill Heywood.

In August last year, Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, received a suspended death sentence for the murder of Heywood. The trial in the southern Chinese city of Hefei only lasted seven hours.

'No official is clean'

But the Chinese leadership also faces the problem that the combination of political power and economic interests doesn't end with Bo Xilai. Corruption has become endemic in China and many politicians are involved in it. Last year, US media outlets such as "The New York Times" and "Bloomberg" published the results of an investigation on the wealth accumulated by the families of top Chinese officials.

They found that the family of the current Chinese President and CPC chief, Xi Jinping, amounts to more than $400 million USD. The extended family of former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is said to have financial assets worth more than $2.6 billion. However, the reports didn't go down well in Beijing and authorities soon reacted by blocking the websites of both organizations in China.

Rebecca Liao, a corporate attorney and writer based in California says that the common perception in China is that no official is clean of corruption, yet "the party recognizes that it will not survive if it continues to allow this challenge to its legitimacy to fester," she told DW.

Challenging authority

Some experts believe Bo's appointment to Chongqing was a sign that the aspiring politician's career would not go much further than that. Bo, however, used the appointment to his advantage, conducting anti-crime campaigns with disregard for the rule of law and advocating a return to the values of the revolution. He became the figurehead of the so-called New Left. Bo's approach appealed to many Chinese and was even applauded by some party members. But not all of them.

"Bo Xilai broke with the tradition of preserving the unity of the party and keeping any internal struggles away from the limelight. He developed a sort of brand essence with his administration of the southwestern city of Chongqing," said Andrew Nathan, political science professor at Columbia University. This approach was frowned upon by many of the party's top cadres.

Analysts point out that corruption charges in China are often used to get rid of party members considered political liabilities.

"They are telling other politicians not to challenge the central leadership through mobilizing their own people or presenting a different political line," said David Zweig, professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

An anti-corruption move?

Then China's Minister of Commerce Bo Xilai gestures during a news conference with ASEAN Trade Ministers and their Dialogue Partners at the conclusion of the 39th ASEAN Economic Ministers Meeting in Makati city, east of Manila, Philippines. (Photo: ddp images/AP Photo/Bullit Marquez, File)

Bo Xilai is said to have broken with the tradition of keeping any internal struggles away from the limelight

Now Bo's leftist followers have been silenced and their websites closed. At the same time, Xi Jinping has been trying to re-integrate leftist groups, nostalgic for the idealistic early days of Communist rule, by promoting Mao's legacy and encouraging the youth to learn from the former Communist leader.

Many analysts agree that the CPC's propaganda machine has been trying to portray Bo's upcoming trial as part of Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign. The party is trying to convey the message that nobody is above the law and that it is taking corruption seriously, said Liao, adding that the challenge before the CPC is to demonstrate that there is still reason to believe that China can realize its ambitions to implement the rule of law.

However, it is questionable whether the public will view a single case as evidence that there will be a wider crackdown on corruption. Furthermore, Alpermann indicates that since Xi took over as China's president in March this year, about one hundred civil rights activists have been detained. Among them are believed to be those who demanded that top CPC members reveal their financial assets.

A 99-percent conviction rate

On top of this is the widespread belief that Bo's fate is not merely in the hands of the judges sitting in the courtroom and that the outcome of the trial has already been decided. "His fate will certainly include a guilty verdict on some if not all of the charges against him. I expect that the trial will be a highly choreographed affair," said Margaret Lewis, an expert on China's legal system at Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, USA. She points out that even in cases that are not as politically charged as this, China's conviction rate is approximately 99 percent.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (Photo: Reuters)

Analysts say the CPC is trying to portray the trial as part of Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign

"Trials routinely focus on whether the defendant merits lenient punishment instead of whether the evidence is sufficient to support a guilty verdict," she said, adding that in Bo's case, a not-guilty verdict is completely out of the realm of possibility.

"The CPC would not have transferred his case from the party disciplinary process to the formal criminal justice system unless a guilty verdict was clear. The focus is on what sentence he will receive."

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