One of the biggest political scandals in recent memory has just concluded in China with the sentencing to life imprisonment of Bo Xilai, a former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) favourite, on charges of corruption and abuse of power.
Bo’s trial and subsequent sentencing emphasise the modern CCP’s desire to minimise publicity of so-called ‘state enemies’, a monumental change from the days of public denunciations and show trials under Mao Tse-Tung.
Mao revelled in the public condemnation of his perceived enemies, maximising any opportunity to humiliate any official unfortunate enough to incur his wrath. With the willing help of his Red Guards, Mao used public trials and sentencing to instill fear in potential ‘traitors’, discouraging even his most courageous opponents from concocting schemes to replace him.
Two of the most important figures in communist China were subjected to Mao’s brutal treatment. Peng Dehuai, a former Defence Minister and decorated party veteran, was made to suffer years of torture in private and horrific vilification in public. With placards of hate-filled accusation hung around his neck, he was paraded by fanatical youths outside the Forbidden City, with government-sanctioned newspapers eagerly reporting each denouncement of his traitorous ways.
Likewise Liu Shaoqi, Mao’s number two for over a decade, was arrested and publicly paraded, denounced and beaten by Red Guard goons for being a ‘capitalist-roader’, a vague term concocted by Mao as a convenient way to undermine his enemies’ legitimacy. Liu’s wife suffered similar punishment and Mao was careful in his instructions that the two should be kept alive as long as possible for maximum punishment.
Peng and Liu were guilty of little more than challenging Mao’s insane economic and social policies, which had led China to the brink of collapse, with millions of its citizens starving to death.
Bo Xilai, whose own aspirations for party leadership were probably greater than those conceived by Peng and Liu, will be glad his downfall did not come during the dark days of Mao’s rule. Rather, for a case as high-profile as his, the circumstances of his purging remain largely unknown.
Media outlets were only allowed to print Xinhua-sanctioned reports on Bo’s trial and sentencing, just as they were when his wife, Gu Kailai, went on trial for the murder of Briton Neil Heywood last year.
Despite a feigned ideological commitment to communism and a purported reverence for past party leader’s, today’s CCP hierarchy does not want to associate itself with the actions of its predecessors, particularly those of the Maoist era.
By keeping a lid on the details of Bo’s case, and releasing carefully-manipulated reports to the press, the Chinese government hopes to diffuse the tension surrounding the scandal, divert attention away from the corruption-plagued political system and yet at the same time send a message that opposition to the Politburo will not be tolerated.
Although not nearly as crude and barbaric as Mao’s tactics, the CCPs skillful end handling of the Bo Xilai affair will dissuade would-be-usurpers from engaging in the sort of political intrigue that can overthrow a system.