The trial of Bo Xilai, former senior Party leader of Chongqing, has fascinated China and much of the rest of the world. Bo fell from grace dramatically last year when he was arrested amidst accusations of using his office for personal gain and in connection with a suspicious death of a foreign man. As a highly visible figure in Chinese politics, his allegedly scandalous behavior has been taken very seriously by the authorities. Both Chinese government leaders and external observers have repeatedly pointed out that corruption and unbecoming behavior of public officials severely threaten China’s future stability and the people’s faith in the government. Bo’s personal popularity also strayed dangerously close to a cult of personality, which is viewed as anathema to China’s governmental legitimacy. The country’s experiences under the cult of Mao Zedong demonstrated just how badly things can go when a single man’s ideology takes precedence over sound policy and institutional accountability as a whole; those wounds are still too fresh for the government to allow anyone else to even approach that kind of power. Due to the combination of reckless behavior and personal power that may have grown to threaten Beijing’s authority, Bo’s arrest seemed to have been a long time coming.
China has a conviction rate of roughly ninety-nine percent, meaning that a case only proceeds to trial if a conviction – a favorable outcome for the state – is a certainty. Therefore, it follows that in general the state only allows trials to occur when it wants to crack down hard on someone and to have others know about it. There is an old expression in Chinese: sha ji gei hou kan, or “kill the chicken to scare the monkeys” (literally “kill the chicken and let the monkeys see”). In short, the Chinese Communist Party desperately wants to be seen to follow through on its recent vows to crack down on corruption; Bo’s alleged abuse of power, embezzlement, and involvement in a sordid murder scandal made him the perfect target to demonstrate the Party’s seriousness. He is the proverbial tallest blade of grass that will be cut first. The Chinese government wants to be sure that others take note. If Bo is convicted, as he is certainly expected to be, that will be a strong indication of the government’s increasing focus on combating corruption and the culture that enables it.
The Chinese populace in recent years has grown increasingly frustrated by the arrogance and above-the-law attitudes of many of the country’s rich and powerful. China may now have a large (and quickly growing) middle class but most Chinese are still by no means wealthy. China’s Gini coefficient – the statistical value that shows a country’s income distribution – shows a severe skew between the average Chinese and the super-rich. The Chinese government released an official Gini coefficient – .474 – for the first time in more than a decade (0 indicates perfect distribution between all citizens and 1 indicates that a single person has all the country’s income), but it is thought that the true number is higher. The super-rich or super-connected live in a different world from the rest of China. Average Chinese often derisively refer to the children of these wealthy citizens as fu er dai (“children of the rich”) and guan er dai (“children of officials”) since those two groups are the ones that most often are seen to flout the law and create scandals. Bo Xilai is technically not in one of these two groups since he is a member of the older generation and a child of Bo Yibo, one of the powerful old guard, but the guan er dai/fu er dai are the most common targets of scorn by the Chinese populace. The corruption of the wealthy and connected younger generation was succinctly summed up in the infamous claim by the son of a local police chief in Hebei province after he had struck a pedestrian with his car while drunk in 2010: “Sue me if you want – my father is Li Gang!” “Wo ba shi Li Gang” has since been used by netizens to mock the out-of-touch and scandal-prone elite of China.
A conviction of Bo Xilai – one of the so-called “princelings,” or taizi – will send a clear message to the out-of-control rich and famous who are still causing trouble for the CCP by bringing unwanted attention to China’s severe income inequality. These embarrassing antics, such as trying to one-up each other by posting their bank account balances online, exacerbate an issue that is already sensitive. If Bo Xilai, a popular and powerful scion of the legendary Communist Party founders, can be brutally torn down and publicly shamed, what chance might snot-nosed rich brats that no one likes stand in the future? If the CCP is really serious about cracking down on corruption and scandal, it would seem that the answer is not much. It is often said that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs; Bo might just be the first of many eggs as China starts its anti-corruption campaign in earnest.
Alexander Bowe has an MA in International Studies from the Korbel School and is currently a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Tsinghua University.