I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other.
– Macbeth by William Shakespeare
HONG KONG – China does Macbeth. With a slight Hollywood tweak. Disgraced princeling Bo Xilai‘s day in court may not be the “trial of the century” – although it’s the biggest legal show since the Gang of Four’s in 1980/1981.
The script is meticulously pre-ordained. But no one lost money betting on Bo, The Man Who Would be President, to inject extra drama in this otherwise micromanaged political theatre. He won’t go down without a fight.
Talk about rising to the occasion – from utter invisibility (he had not been seen for a year and a half). In the first day alone of his trial, Bo denied he received US$3.4 million in bribes; denied abuse of power charges; insisted he was under constant pressure by the Central Discipline Inspection Commission when in jail to “influence” his testimony; dismissed his condemned wife Gu Kailai’s testimony as “ridiculous”; called the testimony of prosecution witness and disgraced tycoon Xu Ming “the ugly performance of someone who had sold his soul”; and got into an argument with the judge.
Essentially, Bo said, “I was framed.”
Gripping stuff – which would have made fabulous TV if Beijing had allowed live coverage. Too risky. Instead, there’s minimal leeway; the court is live-blogging through its Chinese microblog Sina Weibo account, and the Weibo and Twitter accounts of Xinhua. This led to fabulous scenes such as a female anchor on Phoenix TV in Hong Kong frantically checking her mobile and reading from it in the middle of a live broadcast.
The by now notorious first photo of Bo inside the Jinan Intermediate Court, in the capital of coastal Shandong province, the first photo since his arrest last year, was shared online no less than 26,000 times in the first half-hour. Then the court transcript of the first day of the trial got 24.9 million hits overnight on a popular Chinese news aggregator site.
Everybody knows the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) totally controls the courts and leaves nothing to chance. Everybody knows the verdict is already pre-determined. The People’s Daily has already ruled that the evidence of Bo’s crimes is irrefutable.See here (in Chinese). That leaves the (wild) betting all over China about the sentence.
For the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao it will be 13 years. Yet Cai Yongwei, from the Lianhe Zaobao newspaper, has a juicier angle: Bo made a deal with Beijing over the manner he’s being judged, and about the content of the verdict itself.
It makes total sense that the performance was green-lighted by the Politburo, no less – thus boosting president Xi Jinping’s much-publicized crackdown on official corruption. Yet the opening for Bo to mount some rambling defense hardly implies more transparency and real judicial independence in China.
According to Xinhua there are only 19 journalists allowed inside the court (no foreigners). As far as “transparency” goes, Xinhua released a brief statement of a few hundred words. And the symbolic micromanaging is beyond obsessive. Bo may have been allowed to show up in white shirt and black trousers (and not an orange jumpsuit); a sign of respect. But he’s flanked by two giants, even though he himself stands 1.86 meters tall (as in dwarfed by the system).
This is – as it was from the very beginning – all about high-stakes hardcore politics. Beijing cannot embark on the new era of tweaking the Chinese economic model – via chengzhenhua – without a closure to this fissure right at the top, represented by the populist creator of the Chongqing model; Maoist rhetoric, mega-projects and hardcore crackdown on organized crime (although some rackets were left alone).
Under this perspective, human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang sees virtually no difference between the trial of Bo’s Gang of One and the trial of the Gang of Four.
Compare it to lawyer and legal scholar Chen Youxi, who argues that this is a real trial, not a show.See here (in Chinese). He also insists that instead of “abuse of power”, Bo should have been charged with covering up the murder by his wife of dodgy British businessman Neil Heywood.
The – micromanaged – show must go on. All signs point to a (conviction) endgame before the third plenum of the 18th Central CommitteeSee here. (possibly to be held in October), which will crystallize the next Chinese economic drive. Framed or not, The Man Who Would be President won’t be in the picture.