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What the Bo verdict says about China
Publication Date : 25-09-2013
The life sentence imposed on disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai dramatises two defining aspects of contemporary China.
As an illustration of what President Xi Jinping meant when he demanded probity and frugality in public life, the sentence will be applauded as proper by China's vulnerable masses who have ever been ground down by venality and power abuses at all levels.
Bo accomplished a lot in the social and economic spheres when he governed Dalian and Chongqing, two important logistical centres. His spectacular downfall teaches the nation's administrators that public acclaim and political stardom are not to be parlayed into personal aggrandisement, as if of right.
The Chinese Communist Party's high-fliers who are sent out to manage the provinces and cities in a vast, decentralised domain have to take this lesson to heart, or an ancient culture steeped in gratification will never change. China's future depends on it.
Having brought a case against a heavyweight like Bo, who was eyeing a place on the Politburo Standing Committee, the onus is on the new leadership to show that the campaign has depth and is not just for demonstration effect.
The people will be looking to Xi for encores - and he cannot afford to disappoint. Corruption happens to be widespread. His credibility and eventually his legitimacy will be called into question if prosecutions for political jobbery are seen as selective, as in the past allegedly.
Reports that former Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang and his acolytes are being investigated encourage a positive view of the president's resolve, but remember how extensive the state sector and patronage networks are.
The other aspect of this drama is less edifying. Whatever Bo's personal weaknesses, there is considerable support for the view that he was undone by his vaulting ambition.
Not only was he a maverick risk-taker as a party secretary of Chongqing, but he was said to be mobilising for a Maoist revival, which could recall the spectre of the ruinous Cultural Revolution.
What if this wobbled a get-rich-quick China? His personal popularity and Chongqing governing model which promoted the building of a power centre far from the capital's gaze were said to have made the Beijing elites nervous. He had to be eliminated.
If this case was more about power than ideology or unlawful conduct, the sacrifice of able administrators for political expediency will carry a cost to the nation if snuffing out rivals becomes habitual.
This arguably is too pat a view of a complex case, but there are ample precedents in China's millennial court intrigues. Factional power struggles are part of the terrain, except that China for all its size is a fragile entity.