Editor’s Note: In an interview with the National Bureau of Asian Research’s Jonathan Walton, Cheng Li answers questions about the significance of recent developments in the Bo Xilai case in China.
Johanthan Walton: What is your reaction to the decision to have a criminal trial for Bo Xilai?
Cheng Li: I applaud the Chinese leadership for deciding to go through the legal process, with all its potential difficulties and embarrassments, and all the challenges and risks involved in putting Bo Xilai on trial. Although some people are cynical and still think that this is nothing but factional politics, at least in the wake of the crisis, the top leaders reached an agreement to go through the legal process and have criminal charges filed against him. To publicly reveal some of the criminal conduct of this charismatic and demagogic CCP leader is a sign of commitment, not a sign of fear. It’s a testament to unity among the leadership, not an evidence of a split. Most importantly, it could potentially be an important step toward gaining public confidence about political reforms and the rule of law.
Previously, some people suggested that Bo would be handled in a way similar to former CCP general secretary Zhao Ziyang, through the party’s disciplinary system but not through legal or criminal charges. Now we know that this is not the case and that the legal process has already started. I have always argued that while Zhao and Bo are both heavyweight politicians, they are quite different in terms of their wrongdoing. Zhao’s offenses were that he could not effectively control the Tiananmen protests and also released some secret information to foreigners. He was never charged with corruption and certainly not implicated in a murder committed by a family member or other terrible abuses of power. But Bo is charged with all these things: attempting to cover up the crime or interfere with the investigation, and also abuse of power and corruption. The most important thing is that, if the leadership handles Bo’s scandal the same way as in Zhao’s case, it’s really an insult to China’s judicial system and legal development over the past two decades.
Premier Wen Jiabao actually said, even before Bo was dismissed as party chief of Chongqing, that the leadership should use the legal process to deal with the Wang Lijun case. That’s a positive development. China’s legal profession, which was very weak during the 1989 Tiananmen protests, has now become an important interest group in Chinese society. Two hundred thousand registered lawyers now have a voice and many of them are calling for rule of law and constitutionalism, a call that has grown louder in the wake of the Bo Xilai crisis.