New openness?

The trial of Chinese politician Bo Xilai has evoked enormous interest and attention worldwide.

A charismatic politician, who at one time seemed destined for a seat in China’s highest decision-making body, the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Bo is facing trial on charges of bribery, corruption and abuse of power.

Earlier, his wife was awarded a suspended death sentence for murdering her British business partner, a case in which Bo stands accused of abusing power. The verdict is a foregone conclusion. Bo is sure to be found guilty. There is some uncertainty over the sentence, although it is widely believed that he will get a jail term of at least a decade. Why then this extraordinary interest in a trial whose outcome is more or less predictable? This, after all, is not the first time that a high-profile rising star is in the dock. Chairman Mao’s wife Jiang Qing herself was put on trial after his death.

What sets apart this trial from others is its relative openness. Even if the trial is far from fair – the CPC is likely to have made clear to the court the sentence it should hand out to Bo – it is far more open than other high-profile ones that preceded it.

More details are being provided on what is happening in the courtroom than ever before. Clearly, the CPC is keen to use the Bo trial not only to indicate that no one, not even a ‘princeling’ and former rising star of the CPC, is above the law but also to signal that the government is cracking down on corruption. In the past, trials often lasted a few hours. Bo’s trial is several days old now. The trial doesn’t seem scripted and Bo’s lawyers are in a combative mode. Bo is airing much dirty linen of CPC officials much to the discomfiture of the party. CPC officials are reportedly uneasy with details of the luxurious lifestyles of party leaders emerging from the court room into the public domain.

When Bo’s abuse of power became public last year, it dealt a blow to the CPC’s image. And in a bid to distance itself from the rot that was laid bare, the party quickly expelled Bo. However, the party is aware of the immense grassroots support that Bo continues to enjoy. It cannot easily silence him without facing a revolt. The possibility of Bo being ‘rehabilitated’ at some point in future cannot be ruled out.

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