Little Known About Trial of Bo Xilai — Except The Result

Aug 13, 2013
Originally published on August 13, 2013 4:40 pm

China is in a holding pattern, waiting for the trial of a former rising star in the Communist party, Bo Xilai.

Bo ran the city of Chongqing — a metropolis of 30 million people. He is being tried on corruption charges, including taking $3.3 million in bribes.

Bo is considered by Forbes to be the 10th richest man in China. He is also suspected of involvement in the killing of British business man Neil Heywood — for which his wife Gu Kailai has been convicted.

So far, authorities have not said exactly when the trial will begin, or detailed all the charges against Bo.

Margaret Lewis, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law, told Here & Now that most trials in China are not about guilt or innocence but about sentencing.

“Ninety-nine percent of all trials result in conviction,” she said. “This one will be highly orchestrated by the party.”


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It's HERE AND NOW. China is in a holding pattern, waiting for the trial of a former rising star in the Communist Party named Bo Xilai. Bo ran the city of Chongqing, a metropolis of 30 million people. He's considered by Forbes to be the 10th richest man in China, and he's being tried on corruption charges, including taking $3.3 million in bribes. His wife, Gu Kailai, is currently in prison for the murder of a British businessman named Neil Heywood. The trial of a top public official is rare in China, and perhaps it'll give us a glimpse into the country's legal system, how it works and whether it's changing. For more, we're joined by Margaret Lewis, an associate professor at Seton Hall University School of Law. Margaret, welcome.

MARGARET LEWIS: Thank you for inviting me.

HOBSON: So had this not been such a public case, it wouldn't have even been a foregone conclusion that there'd be a trial in the first place, right?

LEWIS: The government is not happy that there's been so much media attention on this case, because it does draw a lot of attention to not only Bo Xilai's lavish lifestyle, but to the huge wealth by a number of top officials. The problem is, once the story got out, the government couldn't say, OK, everyone. Look away. Don't pay attention to this. And in the past - certainly before the Internet was such a player - it could have been more low key. Now, there's really no choice but to try to at least put a period at the end of the sentence and put this whole case behind the leadership.

HOBSON: OK. So since there's going to be a trial, why don't we know when it's going to be?

LEWIS: There are a number of unknowns. One of which is when the trial will start, and there could be a couple of reasons for that. First of all, I don't think that the leadership wants a large gathering at the court. So keeping an element of mystery helps that from happening. In addition, the top leadership is currently meeting, and perhaps they themselves have not decided what exactly they want as the outcome of this trial.

HOBSON: Now, I assume they don't have Court TV in China, but will there be reporters in the courtroom?

LEWIS: There will be state media reports of what occurs, but I would be very surprised if we saw reporters from the independent press. The trial could, in name, be open to the public, but good luck getting a seat.

HOBSON: So who will be in the courtroom? Do we know?

LEWIS: There will be, I think, a carefully selected audience of people who are not expected to hit the microblogs and the Internet immediately afterwards.

HOBSON: Now, will Bo Xilai have a lawyer?

LEWIS: He will have a lawyer. That is expected. But the issue is who that lawyer will be. His family had wanted to appoint their own lawyers, but then those lawyers were essentially told they could not appear for him, and instead, he has been appointed state lawyers who were not of his own choosing.

HOBSON: So, hearing you say all of this - I don't even know why I have to ask this question, but I'll ask it, anyway - Is this a real trial, a show trial, a trial for the history books? What is it?

LEWIS: I think it's primarily a show trial and a trial for the history books. Any trials in China are, for the most part, about sentencing, not about guilt and innocence. The conviction rate is about 99 percent.


LEWIS: So if you are a defendant and you get to the point that you are being tried, it's really a question of what the sentence will be. But, in particular, here, with such a politically charged trial, there is absolutely no way that there's going to be anything but a guilty verdict.

HOBSON: So why even bother? Why are they even having this trial?

LEWIS: There's a couple of reasons. I think, first of all, the government wants to show that China does have rule of law, and part of that is having Bo go through the formal criminal justice system. In addition, you have the idea of having some deterrence, perhaps, of other officials who are corrupt. There's a Chinese saying of killing the chicken to scare the monkeys. So by perhaps - not actually killing. I don't think he'll be executed. But punishing Bo could send a message. And, finally, I think it's an attempt by the leadership to placate citizens who are tired of corruption.

HOBSON: But if 99 percent of cases end in conviction, is it really worth going through a trial like this to show people they're going to be punished if they do something wrong?

LEWIS: There is a huge range of what those punishments might be. So for Bo, he has a number of charges that he's facing: taking advantage of his position for personal gain, accepting bribes, embezzling public money, abuse of power. We could see anywhere from a few years in prison to a suspended death sentence, which could result in up to 25 years in prison.

HOBSON: There is a new regime in China, and I wonder how much this trial is about showing that things are different now than they were before.

LEWIS: There's a somewhat new government in China. The current top leadership is new, having been in power for less than a year. But all of the men in the top pinnacle of power were a part of the government before. So it's not a dramatic change in government. That said, Bo Xilai made enemies in the top leadership. He started to create a cult of personality, had a strong sense of populism, and that cuts against the current trend in China of having more of a collective leadership.

So there is a sense that the current government wants to, first of all, show we do not support Bo Xilai-type politicians. And second of all, Xi Jinping, the new top dog, has made a very public stand against corruption...


LEWIS: ...and he needs to show some action.

HOBSON: Now, as we've said, 99 percent of cases end in conviction. The real question is what the punishment is going to be. Is there a question of that right now? Or do you think that's pre-determined too?

LEWIS: I think there still is a question. And partially, we don't know exactly what the allegations are. So for example, there's discussions that the charges include abuse of power. But in addition to just using power for economic gain, there's some question whether in some way Bo might be connected to the murder of Neil Heywood, the British businessman who Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted of murdering. And we could see a sentence of, I think, you know, a couple years in prison.

There will be, I expect, some sort of prison time. But his sentence could be as severe as a reprieved death sentence. This is when a person is sentenced to death but with a two-year reprieve. And as long as during that two-year period the person does not, I don't know, attack a guard in prison or do something egregious, the prison term is commuted to a long time in prison, which is exactly what happened to Bo's wife.

HOBSON: Margaret Lewis, as somebody who follows this closely and the Chinese legal system closely, what would surprise you about this case? What would make you think, wow, they're really doing things differently than I expected?

LEWIS: I would be pleasantly surprised if reporters got in the courtroom from, you know, not only in the state media but some of the more respected independent media sources. That would be absolutely fantastic. It'd be like Christmas and my birthday all wrapped into one. I would be also surprised if we got some more details about what exactly are the allegations? You know, what's going on with tracing, for example, how the money was used to allegedly buy a villa in France. There's just a lot of opacity around this whole trial.

HOBSON: Margaret Lewis is an associate professor at Seton Hall University School of Law. Margaret, thank you so much.

LEWIS: Thank you for inviting me.

HOBSON: And up next, what does the new sci-fi movie "Elysium" say about life on Earth in 2013 and income inequality? You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.