What It's Like to Be Tried For Corruption In a Corrupt Country

The Bo Xilai trial that began last Thursday has been dubbed by the international media as China’s “trial of the century.”

The scandal of the fallen politician is certainly one of the most scrutinized in China within the past three decades. The country’s structural problems and political intrigue tied to the Communist Party are being discussed along with the proceedings, and Chinese citizens and the international community are hungry for the details. However, besides addressing the fate of a former high-level politician, the trial could shed light on how corruption functions within the Chinese government.

Once considered a top candidate for the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest level decision-making body, Bo could face a heavy prison sentence if convicted of corruption, embezzlement, and abuse of power. The trial is held in Jinan, Shandong, which is far from Bo’s base of political power in Chongqing, a large metropolitan center where he was once the party chief. Much of the prosecution’s case rests on the testimony of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, who received a suspended death sentence last year for murdering an English businessman, and Xu Ming, a wealthy business associate who has curried favor with many of China’s political elites, including former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

In a system where corruption is prevalent, officials and businessmen must establish guanxi (connections) with each other in order to ascend the political ranks or to establish large commercial enterprises. These necessary connections for advancement go beyond merely cultivating a friendly and formal relationship, but often involve the exchange of monetary benefits, offering corporate positions for government offspring, or returning a favor with large business contracts.

For example, in order “to get access to land, licenses and capital, Chinese entrepreneurs say they are expected to cater to the needs of Communist Party officials and their families,” which “can mean paying school tuition, entertaining spouses and giving corporate shares to the relatives of public officials.” Key witness and billionaire Xu Ming had business and personal ties to the Bo family, such as paying for the expenses of their trips abroad. Before that, Xu had a close relationship with Wen Jiabao and his family, investing in companies with the relatives of Wen; at one point, he even dated Wen’s daughter.

However, such an inextricable relationship between government and business means that a politician’s scandal could implicate his business partners, and vice versa. Xu Ming was investigated for Bo’s wife’s murder of the businessman last year.

To be fair, under the new leadership of Xi Jinping, the central government has tried to crack down on corruption, but there are too many of these elements within the bureaucracy for it to completely be eradicated. Now that evidence of such corruption is on full display, it is difficult for Bo to escape a guilty verdict. Although he has vigorously defended his innocence such as trying to discredit his wife’s testimony by calling her mentally unstable, commentaries from official state newspapers have already prejudged Bo by saying the evidence is overwhelming, lending further support to the claim that the government will not look the other way.  

Moreover, the corruption trial has not only garnered intense public interest, but also harsh criticism from Bo’s supporters. These far leftists, or conservatives, have remained loyal to Bo because he advocated a return to the teachings of Mao Zedong. After Bo’s fall from power, some of his supporters turned against party leaders, and some even complained about Chinese president Xi Jinping. However, Xi and other top leaders realize that they need to maintain their party’s legitimacy by appealing to its core ideologies while advocating greater political and economic reform.

In a country that has mostly kept the process of high level decisions from its people, how the government handles this trial could restore the faith of a public discontented with rampant governmental corruption, or risk angering hard conservatives who feel that the Communist Party has abandoned the people that were integral to its political ascendancy