China After the Bo Xilai Trial

A defiant Bo Xilai is contesting charges  in China’s “trial of the century,” which started this week in the Intermediate People’s Court in Jinan, the capital of eastern Shandong province.  He said he had been forced to confess during interrogation and retracted his admissions of guilt.

Once China’s most charismatic and openly ambitious official, Bo faces years of imprisonment for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power.  He was detained in March of last year and formally charged late last month.  His trial date, announced on the 18th, was apparently set at the just-concluded leadership conclave at the Beidaihe resort.  The repeated delays in finally disposing of his case -- he was expected to be convicted and sentenced last October -- are undoubtedly the result of intense bargaining among factions in the ruling Communist Party.

Mr. Bo is thought to have some connection to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in November 2011, a deed to which Bo’s wife pled guilty and was given a suspended death sentence last August.  Rumors say he will be incarcerated in comfortable surroundings for a long stretch, that there will be no further prosecution of his family, and that there will be little or no restitution.

His fate, when it is announced, should reveal Beijing’s current balance of power.  A lenient sentence will be an indication that the Party’s regressive elements are ascendant.  They rushed to support Bo when, as Chongqing’s Party chief, he sponsored populist and Maoist-themed campaigns that shook the Chinese political system.

Many argue that Bo’s conviction will mark a turning point in China’s turbulent politics.  The general consensus among China watchers is that, once the court pronounces its sentence, Chinese leader Xi Jinping will be able to begin governing in earnest, breaking the paralysis in Beijing.

For instance, many predict the leadership will announce structural economic reforms at the Party’s Third Plenum, which could take place in October.  Similarly, China watchers expect to see signs that Xi has consolidated his grip on the Party machinery and the People’s Liberation Army, which reports directly to him in his role as chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission.

This narrative may not be correct, however.  The divisions in the Party and society that delayed Bo Xilai’s sentencing remain, and in some ways may be worsening.  The trial, although it will render the Party’s final -- for now -- political verdict on Bo, will do nothing to end the infighting as to what to do with deteriorating growth.

China’s economy is growing, but not nearly at the 7.5% rate claimed by the National Bureau of Statistics.  Inadequate adjustments for inflation and substantial overstatement of industrial output, among other maladies, suggest growth is really in the low single digits, well off the double-digit pace seen as recently as 2010.