SINOGRAPH Bo: political implications of a
non-political crime By
It took about five years
to bring the infamous Gang of Four to trial for
the worst mistakes of the Cultural Revolution, but
it took only five months to start the criminal
process against Bo Xilai, former party chief of
Four were arrested in 1976, about
a month after the demise of Mao Zedong. Bo was
arrested last March, similarly about a month
after Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun tried to
seek asylum in the US consulate in Chengdu. Neither
the Gang of Four's trial nor what will happen with
Bo is about simply excess or corruption, and both
sets of events have massive political implications
for the future of China.
in the time taken to organize the trials is very
significant. It took
five years for the leadership to reach a consensus
on a public trial of the Four. Deng Xiaoping had
to be reinstated as paramount leader at the end of
1978, and Hua Guofeng, the man Mao wanted as his
heir, had to be ousted as premier and party
chairman in 1980 and 1981 respectively.
In the months following Bo's detention, no
unexpected reshuffles have appeared alongside the
long-planned leadership change, though this is
still possible as his trial will possibly occur
just days before the opening of the historical
18th Party Congress, due for November 8.
Despite the similarities in the political
shade of the trials, there are marked differences
between the two events. The Four did what they did
in the midst of a revolutionary frenzy. For Bo,
there was no revolutionary movement and everything
spun off from a single, heinous and inexplicable
crime: the killing of a British citizen by Bo's
The political differences are huge.
The Four could claim, as they did, that they were
following Mao's orders - this gave them a
political screen. Bo can't do that. He had
nobody's orders to follow, and if he claimed so,
this would not shield Bo but instead implicate his
protector in the scandal.
mistake, for which he will be tried and sentenced,
has nothing to do with politics: it was his
invovlement in a simple premeditated
assassination, whose motives are still vague.
The incident itself is clear and beyond
comprehension or forgiveness. Neil Heywood was
called in from abroad and then within hours killed
by Gu Kailai. Bo was informed of it and rather
than start proceedings against Gu, he tried to
cover it up, seeking the help of Wang as chief of
We can say with certainty that Bo
is guilty of covering up murder. Moreover, one can
think that Gu might not have killed Heywood if she
was not sure she could count (as was the case) on
her husband's assistance. Wang might have not fled
to the US consulate without Bo's attempted cover
up. Therefore, Bo could be found guilty of a
deeper complicity in Heywood's murder, perhaps
that he took part in its planning and execution of
the murder, and certainly that he caused Wang's
flight to the consulate.
sense, his faults could be considered more serious
than those of his wife. Without Bo there could
hardly have been a murder and there certainly would not
have been any attempted flight. What kind of punishment
would he face in America with these accusations?
It could be a death sentence.
are not political. The only political issue is if
Heywood was a spy: but this would only make things
only worse given that Bo was on the verge of
becoming one of the most powerful people in China
and thus the world.
A crowd of other elements
now emerging in China can be considered only
aggravating, not decisive, circumstances. Bo confiscated properties
valued some 200 billion yuan (US$32
billion) and arrested 17 out of the 20 richest people
in Chongqing. This crime could be criminal or
political. He approved the widespread use of
torture in scores of underground detention
centers? Maybe political, maybe criminal. He
pocketed part of the proceedings of the
confiscation and spread the rest among political
allies? It is hard to see it as a crime or not, as
China has no clear law about it.
if one sees all these elements through the lens
of the Heywood murder, then all becomes ugly and
Bo becomes a blot tainting anything and anybody
tied to him.
The clarity of the issue, the
obscene crime and its political fall-out, might
have hastened the process to reach a consensus on
Bo. For the Four it was different: there was no
single, apparent crime they had committed - their
trial simply brought political closure to a
damning historical period.
that Bo's crime and the political fall-out are
distinct could make the political consequences
starker. This could also invite greater and
clearer resistance from people associated with Bo or
supporting his neo-Maoist tenets. This will make
all following developments very important as they
will be a clearer indication of where the Party
wants to go after Bo's crimes.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist
for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org