A tale of two trials…

September 7, 2013 by Peng Chun

Millions of eyes were fixed on a single court case in China. Discussion heated across the country. The events in the lead-up to the trial could not have been more dramatic, nor those accused more well-known and influential.
Not a description of the five-day Bo Xilai trial which ended last week, though it did take place in the People’s Republic just over three decades ago, from late 1980 to early 1981. It was the trial of what was then called the Lin Biao and Jiang Qing Counter-Revolutionary Cliques, the latter more widely known as the Gang of Four. Despite its significance in marking the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, that high-profile trial is still widely thought of as a “show trial”.
Thirty years later, there is widespread disagreement in China on whether or not the Bo Xilai trial should be labelled the same way. Some have suggested that it is far from a show trial as Mr. Bo was actually allowed to overturn his own previous confession and to claim his innocence before the bench. The fact that the written transcripts of the proceedings were published online every day without much delay has also been hailed as unprecedented and historic transparency.
On the contrary, others have argued that at its core the Bo case is all about political staging and even the applauded openness isn’t that exciting, as the coverage was still controlled and the truth filtered. In other words, from the Gang of Four to Bo, it is business as usual in red China.
In fact, whether or not to call the Bo Xilai case a “show trial” with echoes of its predecessor a generation ago matters far more than what to write in the media headlines. Comparing these two immensely important trials offers interesting insights into the change and continuity in China’s legal and political systems and society in general.
Hard to pass unnoticed is the transparency in which the Bo trial was conducted. From day one, court proceedings were broadcast almost in real-time on the Sina Weibo (the hugely popular Chinese equivalent to Twitter) account set up by the judging Jinan Intermediate People’s Court. For the first time since the Gang of Four trial, millions of Chinese had the opportunity of a glimpse into the inner workings of such a high profile trial.
What’s more important, this rare display of openness in court proceedings went substantially farther than the one-hour TV programme containing video clips of the Gang of Four trial – which was unprecedentedly transparent for its time. This time detailed accounts of the exchanges in court were made available to the public.
To many ordinary Chinese, this was the first time that they had heard detailed accounts of a privileged world of wealth ruled by their powerful comrades. At the same time, however, it is also likely to have been the first time that they had become exposed to the meaning of such terms as examination of evidence, cross-examination of witnesses and courtroom debate between the prosecution and defence.
In this sense, compared with its predecessor 30 years ago, Bo’s trial represented a huge step forward, providing a lesson in legal education to countless Chinese, who might once have believed that real litigation only happened in Hollywood films.
It may also yet inspire the next generation of law school students to choose criminal law as a career, not merely attracted by the sheer intellectual excitement but also by the honour of helping to uphold justice. On top of that, the whole transcript of the Bo Xilai trial will quite possibly become classic textbook material that will cultivate a scarce civic virtue among Chinese— the ability to reason and argue in public, peacefully and with evidence.
If this happens, then the Bo trial will have a positive impact far beyond the legal development in China. Even if its openness may not be what the Chinese leadership initially intended and even if it is essentially a one-off expediency simply to showcase the fairness of this particular trial, it is already having an impact. True, its transparency was limited in many ways, not least because the published transcript was abridged beforehand; nonetheless, within just a few days, the Bo Xilai trial had secured its milestone status in the development of Chinese law and politics.
Furthermore, the trial also represents progress in the following two senses which are less known and discussed. First, the Lin Biao and Jiang Qing trials actually ran counter to one of the most salient features of any modern legal system, namely that laws should be prospective not retroactive. This was because the People’s Republic only introduced its first criminal law and criminal procedural law in 1979, which was then used as the legal basis to charge the anti-revolutionaries for what they did before 1976. Bo Xilai’s trial was not subject to any similar procedure thanks to the proliferation of legislation in the reform era.
Second, at least formally, the whole judicial process this time is more independent from political influence. The highest authority behind the trial three decades ago was the leading group, made up of leaders from central party, government and military committees, which effectively laid out working guidelines for the judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers. In contrast, there seems to be no political handlers like this for the Bo trial.
That said, it would still be premature to conclude that the Bo Xilai trial is a complete success story. First and foremost is that the division between the legal and the political continues to be muddy. It took party leaders such as Deng Xiaoping much pain before the trial opened in November 1980 to carve out a fine line between political guilt and criminal liability. At the end of the day, that line became notably artificial when the prosecution was all about subversion of state, leading counter-revolutionary groups and persecuting national leaders and ordinary people during the Cultural Revolution.
Although Bo was charged with corruption and misuse of powers and there was no similar overt political intervention into the trial this time, people find it difficult to accept that the political forces aren’t pulling strings from behind the scenes. A commentary was posted on the official Xinhua website one day before the trial started, suggesting that the trial shows that local governors must not ever deviate from the central authority.
Considering Bo’s controversial campaign of “singing red and striking black” in Chongqing, that commentary is seen by many to have revealed the real motivation behind bringing him down. To make things more suspicious, the entry was soon deleted and is no longer accessible on any of the major news outlets within China.
Second, unlike the trial of the Gang of Four – which was widely welcomed throughout China – the Bo Xilai trial has demonstrated the deep cleavage in today’s Chinese society. Bo’s diehard supporters gathered and put up banners outside the heavily guarded court building, praising his policy of bringing wealth to all and criticizing the central party’s unwarranted persecution, only to prompt police detention.
Meanwhile, Mr. Li Zhuang, a famous lawyer wrongfully convicted in the height of Bo’s campaign, celebrated the trial of the man he regarded as a double-faced political careerist with little regard to human rights and rule of law.
On this front, the highly divisive trial itself is just a tip of the iceberg, where the visions of China’s future are now profoundly polarized.
Last but not least, in direct contrast to Weibo’s candid publication of the court proceedings, the official media acted as if nothing had happened in 30 years by running nearly a smear campaign against Bo even before the court had heard the case. This was immediately criticized by scholars like He Weifang for being against the principles of neutrality and objectivity in journalism.
The world now awaits the first instance judgment on Bo Xilai to see if his somewhat unexpected defiance will lead to harsher punishment – undoubtedly a legitimate concern since it could be a test case of the substantive criminal justice in China today. Nevertheless, the implication of the merits of the case is necessarily limited because of its political significance and sensitivities. In this sense, what’s important about the special trial 30 years ago is not that those evil power players can and will be brought to justice. Rather, its relevance to today lies in the way in which such justice is done and seen to be done. Once again the Bo Xilai trial puts China at a crossroad and the direction it takes matters a lot.

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