Bo Xilai trial: China ends another Cultural Revolution

China's fallen political star is charged with corruption, but may have been too 'red' for his own good

Bo Xilai (left), at the National People's Congress on March 14, 2013, and his father Bo Yibo, during his purge in the Cultural Revolution. His name "Bo Yibo" is crossed out in the placard around his neck.
L. to R.: Getty Images;

Bo Xilai -- the enigmatic fallen star of Chinese politics, who once championed his own sweeping local anti-corruption campaign -- goes on trial Thursday on charges of "bribery, graft and abuse of power," according to state media -- amid a broader anti-corruption probe that in recent weeks has targeted government officials and international enterprises.

But some China-watchers say state media has used the charges against Bo -- revealed well over a year after his fallout from the ruling Communist Party -- to spin a story about party politics into a highly publicized crackdown on graft in the public sector.  

"There is no one in China who will believe this is actually about corruption," said Cheng Li, director of research at the Brookings Institution's China Center. He said that Bo has been relatively "less corrupt" than most officials and that his anti-corruption campaign was actually "more effective than most."

Too 'red'

Bo's fall from grace was initially triggered by right-hand man and Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun's defection to the U.S. embassy, where he told diplomats Bo's wife Gu Kailai had killed family friend and business associate, British national Neil Heywood.

Still, analysts like Li say Bo was likely too 'red' for his own good.

Bo's name is still synonymous with his dual-pronged campaign to chang hong da hei, or "sing red and combat the black.” The 'black' refers to the roughly 5,000 alleged mobsters and corrupt authorities he arrested with the help of Wang Lijun.

As for the 'red,' Bo advocated a social return to China's turbulent 1960s and 70s.

Bo promoted Cultural Revolution-style songs and art in local media, ordered local officials to wear the uniforms of their Mao-era forbearers and -- in his most controversial bid -- authored a plan to send Chongqing students to the countryside to bridge the rural-urban gap. For many, that move too closely resembled Chairman Mao Zedong's “Down to the Countryside” movement, which forcefully tried to disabuse city-dwelling youth of what the leader viewed as bourgeois habits.

Bo's throwbacks to the Cultural Revolution are particularly notable, because his father, Bo Yibo, one of the “eight immortals” -- long-lasting, historied members -- of the Communist Party, was himself purged in 1967 -- in another campaign that aimed to crack down on what it believed to be corruption, or counterrevolution, in China's ruling class.

The elder Bo was publicly humiliated, imprisoned and tortured.

Former Premier Wen Jiabao and former President Hu Jintao are known to have indirectly called Bo's revolutionary showmanship disingenuous.

Although leaders often rhetorically endorse the founding ideology of Mao, Bo's efforts as the party chief of southern metropolis Chongqing and a Politburo member to revive the spirit of the Cultural Revolution unsettled many in the ruling class. 

Indeed, Bo's socialism has been his defining trademark.

Shi Jichun, a law professor at People's University in Beijing, said Bo isn't the first party chief to be purged from the party on charges of graft. Chen Xitong, a Politburo member and mayor of Beijing, was thrown out of the party in a 1995 anti-corruption campaign that many say was spearheaded by his political rival, former President Jiang Zemin. Chen Liangyu, Shanghai's party chief and another Politburo member, suffered a similar fall from power in 2006.

“The difference is [Bo] said, in such a big way, that he wanted to return to socialism,” Shi told Al Jazeera.

Shi said part of the reason why international news coverage of Bo abounds is that his political legacy recalls a bygone era in China that the professor feels is recreated as a stereotype of the modern-day People's Republic in Western media.

In China, Bo's “behavior made a lot of people uncomfortable,” Brookings' Li said.

On May 14, 2012, just before authorities announced Bo had been fired from his role as Chongqing Party chief, former Premier Wen Jiabao lambasted Bo's “sing red” campaign in a thinly veiled criticism that called the Cultural Revolution a “historic tragedy.”

“I think this is one of the direct reasons of Bo’s downfall. Of course there are also many other rumors and gossips about political struggles, but we cannot prove any of them,” said Bin Ouyang, a Chinese affairs analyst at the New York-based Asia Society.

Some Chinese authorities worry Bo's apparent sentimentality for the Cultural Revolution represents a radicalization movement in Chinese politics.

“Right after Mao’s death, the consensus among Chinese leaders and people was that any radical policies or social movement would only bring about catastrophe rather than a solution. But now, largely because of Bo’s Chongqing model, some people turn back and argue that only the radical and tough methods could root out these problems,” Bin said.

An ostensibly revolutionary spirit that seemed to co-opt a historical period that devastated his family and much of the People's Republic was always widely understood as a push to ingratiate himself to Party hardliners.

“Bo Xilai isn’t famous for corruption, but his eagerness for power,” Brookings' Li said.

On corruption

Wen and standing President Xi Jinping's corruption campaign likely didn't prompt the rampage against Bo. But analysts do say Bo is likely being made an example of the graft and rampant social inequalities that threaten the Party's stability in the overarching anti-corruption campaign that Wen has called crucial to the Party's survival.

Independent, Shanghai-based economist Andy Xie Guozhong told Al Jazeera that according to his estimates, some 10 percent of China's gross domestic product is comprised of an “informal economy” of bribes and embezzlement, changing hands within the ruling class.

According to a classified charge sheet leaked to The Wall Street Journal and other international media, Bo stands accused of receiving $3.3 million in bribes and embezzling over $800,000 in public funds.

“People didn't think seriously of the corruption before. Now the economy is obviously facing a lot of difficulties, and most people consider corruption one of the major reasons. They need to take a load off the economy,” Xie said.

Big political trials like Bo's are one of the government's most effective means of addressing the issue, Xie explained.

“China is not based on rule of law,” Xie said. Only bellicose demonstrations of Beijing's political will are “what lasts.”

Chinese state media Xinhua has pledged Bo's trial will be open to the public. But news site China Digital Times reported that China's Propaganda Bureau has already issued a statement to Chinese journalists that they must use Xinhua wire in the trial's coverage.

Xie said he believes the ongoing anti-corruption measures against officials and corporations will go on for a “long time.”

“Three or four years from now, we'll still be talking about it,” he said.

Al Jazeera

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