For an event whose outcome is all but assured, the Bo Xilai trial—scheduled to begin in Jinan on Thursday—arrives with an unusual amount of fanfare. Bo is accused of bribery and abuse of power, and without question will be found guilty and sentenced to prison, probably for a very long time. The conviction will conclude one of China’s most dazzling political careers—as well as one of its most spectacular downfalls. As the Party Secretary of Chongqing, the dashing Bo engineered a populist revival of Mao-era culture as well as cracked down on organized crime, becoming a star destined for higher office. But a scandal involving the poisoning death of a British businessman, a crime for which Bo’s wife was found guilty, led to Bo’s expulsion from the Communist Party and ultimate indictment.
In the predictable world of Chinese criminal justice, Bo’s conviction is assured. But that doesn’t mean that his trial will be a dull, perfunctory exercise. In fact, there are plenty of reasons for the top levels of the Chinese government to be nervous—and that alone makes the proceedings worth paying attention to.
Typically, Chinese officials indicted for corruption attract little public sympathy. But Bo isn’t just any politician. Months after his expulsion from the Communist Party and banishment from public life, Bo still commands significant grassroots support throughout the country. In an effort to clamp down on pro-Bo sentiment, the Chinese government has threatened and intimidated supportive bloggers into silence. Clearly, Beijing wants the trial to come and go without anyone making a fuss. But the government has to be careful; an unjustly harsh verdict may inflame Bo’s supporters, causing a public relations headache that the Communist Party wants desperately to avoid.
There’s also the question of what Bo will say and do in the courthouse. In Chinese jurisprudence, there’s usually no reason for defendants to put up much of a fight, since they’re almost certainly going to be found guilty anyway. But the circumstances of Bo’s trial are different. According to the Wall Street Journal, Bo apparently believes that the charges against him are unfair, and that his wife Gu Kailai—already guilty of the murder of Neil Heywood—is more to blame. For her part, Gu is willing to testify against her husband if it helps protect their son, a law student in the United States, and avoid further legal trouble herself. Given this situation, Bo may find it in his interest to fight the charges, even if it means risking a lengthier prison sentence if he fails to persuade the judges of his innocence.
(It’s worth noting that Gu has other problems, too: Heywood’s family in the UK now wants financial compensation for his death, but even they have begun fighting amongst themselves. A Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t make this up.)
Then there’s the raucous, chaotic nature of major political trials in China, where condemned leaders don’t always go gently into the night. Chen Xitong, the former Beijing mayor convicted of corruption in the 1990s, told his judge that “if you sentence me to prison, you’d better get 300 coffins ready.” Jiang Qing was once China’s most powerful woman, who, as Mao Zedong’s wife, ruled the country as the leader of the “Gang of Four.” During her trial in the early 1980s, Jiang screamed at and ridiculed the court, referring to a female judge as “a bitch.” The smooth, urbane Bo doesn’t seem like the sort to have an outburst in court; but if he acts out, it would not be unprecedented in the history of Chinese jurisprudence.
What does the Bo Xilai trial say about China? On the surface, not much. Those hoping that Bo’s trial will usher in a period of “rule of law” in China will probably be disappointed. But the rise and fall of Bo Xilai, reflects a new era in Chinese politics, where regional politicians can leverage social media to leverage nationwide, grassroots support. Rather than being a distraction in what would otherwise be an ordinary government corruption trial, Bo Xilai’s very celebrity is the detail that keeps Beijing’s leaders up at night.
Matt Schiavenza is an associate editor at The Atlantic.