Sometime soon, disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai will face his accusers in a trial as fair and impartial as loaded dice. Charged with bribery, abuse of power, and corruption, he will almost certainly be convicted of the charges against him. The trial will cap Bo's spectacular downfall -- a saga which began in February 2012, when his right-hand-man Wang Lijun fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, and featured bizarre and fantastical revelations of intrigue, bribery, and poison.
The last major trial in the Bo saga was the August 2012 indictment of his wife Gu Kailai, who was given a suspended death sentence for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. During the half-day trial, Gu reportedly confessed, admitting: "I committed a crime that brought negative consequences to the party and the country." Gu also thanked her lawyers, the judge, and the prosecutors, who "opened the curtains a little bit, to reveal the hidden dirty secrets."
Gu's passivity may make it seem that Chinese show trials follow the Soviet model, featuring weeping defendants pleading for leniency and reinforcing the unquestioned authority of the state. And indeed, some high-ranking Chinese officials do break down: Liu Zhijun, the former minister of railways, reportedly cried at the end of his July 2013 trial, and "had a very good attitude in confession and a strong desire to repent," according to Xinhua, China's official news agency.
But the removal and sentencing of top Chinese officials have been messy affairs, featuring surprisingly rebellious performances from the defendants. Since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the Communist Party has only tried three officials who held power and influence comparable to Bo, and none of them marched gently into that good night.
Chen Liangyu (April 2008)
Chen, a party secretary for the municipality of Shanghai, was the last official of Bo's rank to face trial, and his experience might be a blueprint. Like Bo, Chen was an aggressive politician who fell in part because he clashed with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, China's president and premier respectively from 2003 to 2013, over economic policies. In a 2004 meeting of China's Politburo, the 25-member top decision-making body, Chen "confronted Wen" and warned him that he and the cabinet "would have to ‘bear the political responsibility'" if the premier's policies triggered unemployment and bankruptcies, according to a 2006 Newsweek article.
Chen was detained in September 2006, officially for taking bribes and for his role in a scandal over the misuse of Shanghai's pension fund, but the real reasons probably had more to do with factional politics, wrote Cheng Li, now China research director at the Brookings Institution. While Chen was "certainly notorious for his rottenness, he was, however, only one among several Politburo members with such a reputation," noted Li.
A closed-door trial was held for Chen 18 months after his arrest. In her trial, the formerly striking Gu appeared dumpy and dejected, prompting rumors that a body double had replaced her. Chen, on the other hand, appeared calm and in control -- in video of the trial, he can be seen smirking at the camera, his eyes defiant. While Chen admitted he was "partially responsible" for the scandal, he pleaded not guilty. He was sentenced to 18 years.