Scandal and speculation surrounding the demise of Politburo member Bo Xilai raised questions about the stability and cohesiveness of China's political elite. However as his trial comes to an end the main political challenge is not at the elite level, but in the Communist party's ability to gain legitimacy among the wider public.
The trial of Bo Xilai for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power has generated a number of surprises. To start with, there has been more transparency than most observers had expected, with the court issuing transcripts at regular intervals. Plus, the court used Chinese social media to post images of the proceedings.
This level of transparency is unusual in Chinese trials. However, we should be cautious about seeing this as a precedent for the future development of judicial practice. Bo's case is rather special, both because of the senior positions he held and because of the level of speculation around the case – and Bo's fate – ever since the drama began last February when Wang Lijun, Bo's former police chief in Chongqing, fled to the US Consulate-General in Chengdu.
Wang, who is already serving a prison sentence after being convicted of abuse of power and other offences, gave testimony at Bo's trial. The exchanges between Bo and Wang will be picked over further, with their salacious details of the arguments that apparently ensued in January 2012 when Wang told Bo that Bo's wife was suspected of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood, in Chongqing the previous November.
It is highly likely that Bo will be found guilty. Nonetheless, the trial gave Bo the opportunity to put across his views in court. He surprised observers on the first day by retracting confessions he made during the pre-trial investigation process. It is not clear whether this was expected by the prosecutors in advance of the trial, but it contributed to the trial lasting for five days – much longer than expected.
Result already decided
Most media coverage and comment has focused on the details of the various events, which came out in court. However the political implications lie elsewhere.
The trial should not be seen in isolation but as the culmination of a process which began in the days after Wang's attempted defection was brought to light. The party's subsequent handling of Bo Xilai proceeded in cautious stages: first the removal from his post as Party Secretary in Chongqing in March last year, then his 'suspension' from the Politburo and Party Central Committee a month later while an investigation was carried out by the party. Only in September 2012 was Bo expelled from the Communist Party and the file handed over to state authorities for prosecution.
This train of events serves as a reminder of the context in which China's judicial system operates. Whatever the transparency of proceedings in court, or the professionalism of judges and lawyers, the party's 'leadership' of judicial work means that politically important cases are often subject to direction from the party apparatus.
Popular, not elite, politics is at stake
The Bo case has often been presented as a story of turbulence and factional infighting at the top of the party. But in November 2012 the party delivered a clear leadership transition at the top of both party and military from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, with the government handover in March this year. With the new team firmly in place, the transparency accorded to Bo's trial demonstrates confidence among the leadership, not division.
Political challenges lie not at the top of the party, but in the ability of the party leadership to achieve legitimacy among the wider public. The revelations in the Bo case, from last spring and up to and including the trial, have increased levels of public cynicism about the behaviour of senior officials. Posts on China's social media will provide glimpses of the wider response to the trial; popular opinion is likely to be divided – as it was when Bo was still a serving official, and has remained since his removal from office.
Given that the party seeks to present itself as being 'responsive' to public concerns, the main political implications of the trial will be seen in the impact it has on the leadership's credibility, not in elite politics. It is that imperative, not judicial reform, which explains what we have been allowed to see of the trial.
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