Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.09.04

A Tokyo Perspective on the Bo Xilai Trial

JBPress on August 30, 2013

While international attention this week is focused on a possible U.S. military intervention in Syria, last week's images of Bo Xilai in a Chinese district court are still vivid among some of his contemporaries in Tokyo. The trial must have reminded Japanese baby boomers of that of Jiang Qing, the widow of Mao Zedong, which they read about almost daily in 1980-81.

The fall of Mr. Bo, the former Politburo member and party chief in Chongqing city, may raise questions about the real strength (or weakness) of Xi Jinping's power base inside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There also seem to be some notable differences in temperature between the young and the old specialists in China affairs in journalism and academia.

For example, some western media referred to the "unprecedented transparency" of a Chinese microblog posting semi-live updates of the Bo Xilai trial. Younger Japanese analysts highlighted Bo's repudiation of the pre-trial written testimonies as a clear sign that he would continue his political fight against the party leadership and especially against his childhood friend Xi Jinping.

First of all, it was not unprecedented. The trial of Madame Mao and the rest of the 'Gang of Four', who orchestrated the notorious Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, was broadcast live on Chinese state-run TV, although the number of viewers might have overwhelmingly outnumbered the number of TV sets at the time. Mr. Bo's trial was at least as politically significant as its early 1980s predecessor.

Neither was it fully transparent. Only the Chinese microblog officially followed the Bo Xilai trial and there was no live TV or internet coverage. Various versions of transcripts were posted but some were apparently later removed or re-edited. For instance, a reference to Mr. Bo stating that he was following the orders of 'superiors' suddenly disappeared from the website.

It was not a surprise to see Bo Xilai change his defense tactics, at least for those who remember the dark days during the Cultural Revolution. Reactionary parents were harshly denounced by their own revolutionary sons and daughters in public 'self-criticism' sessions. Many of Mr. Bo's comrades might have lost their traditional Chinese consciences in these times.

The situation was somewhat similar in Tokyo at that time. University campuses were occupied by progressive students and workers as 'liberated zones'. Mao Zedong's 造反有利 zao-fang-you-li slogan (meaning, "to rebel is justified"), now considered radical by current Japanese standards, was quite popular among activist students in Tokyo and elsewhere.

How does the Japanese baby-boomer generation see the Bo Xilai trial? The answer is probably ambivalent. Many apparently aren't interested in this Chinese political show at all, simply because it is none of their business. Some may miss those good old revolutionary days. Others are more likely to portray Mr. Bo as the tip of an iceberg of corruption and scandal in the CCP.

Having said that, one thing is certain. The trial of Bo Xilai is not a product of the internal power struggles among the CCP's various factions. Nor is it a result of personal political rivalry between Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping. It is rather a reflection of a desperate collective CCP effort to survive as the permanent and only governing entity in China. Here are the reasons why.

First, Bo Xilai was removed from the party's inner-circle simply because he broke a CCP political taboo and endangered the entire party. The taboo is the same one that Mao Zedong once broke: to pursue a political goal in an internal CCP power struggle through mobilizing the external general public, which will eventually jeopardize the party's legitimacy and authority.

Mr. Bo and his contemporaries in China, Japan and elsewhere in East Asia must have been fully aware of the hazards of doing so. The history of the Cultural Revolution shows that this dangerous tactic, if adopted nationwide in 2013, would lead to the complete destruction of the CCP's political legitimacy, now much weaker than in 1976.

The Bo Xilai trial was not posted on the microblog for transparency reasons. The CCP leadership just followed the precedent set by the Gang of Four trial, through which the central leadership intended to remind the general public that only the CCP's leadership carries the legitimacy to govern in China and that Bo Xilai, no matter how popular he is among some Chinese, is the real bad guy.

This may also imply a decline in the CCP's political authority and especially that of Xi Jinping. What if Gu Kailai, Bo Xilai's wife, had not murdered a British businessman? What if Wang Lijun, Bo's deputy for public security affairs in Chongqing, had not sought political refuge at the U.S. consulate-general in Chengdu? Bo Xilai might have had a good chance of becoming one of the seven most powerful members of the CCP's Politburo Standing Committee.

This could have been a nightmare for Xi Jinping and his administration. More significantly, this could have triggered a further decline in the party's political authority and eventually led to a new round of political chaos in China. Ironically, the party leadership owes thanks to Gu Kailai, Wang Lijun and ultimately Bo Xilai himself for saving the CCP and prolonging its life.

The author spent over 25 years working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including as Minister at the Embassy of Japan in China and Iraq. When he retired in 2005, he was Deputy Director-General of the Middle East Bureau. Since then, he has taken on the roles of president of the Foreign Policy Institute, Visiting Professor at Ritsumeikan University and Research Director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies.