Bo Xilai: Anti-Corruption Failure in China

Bo Xilai attends the fifth day of his trial at the Jinan Intermediate People's Court. (Photo: China Central Television)

The dramatic fall of Bo Xilai, a popular and promising political star in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has been the most striking political scandal in recent years in China.

In July Bo was indicted for accepting bribes, corruption and abuse of power. August 22 to 26, Bo stood for public trial, but he recanted all the previous admissions of guilt he had given the CCP's anti-corruption investigators, because he said his previous confession was "under psychological pressure."

The public trial on Bo was described by Chinese media as demonstrating "historic transparency" and "historic progress for the rule of law" in China. The People's Daily, the CCP's "throat and tongue," propagated that the prosecution against Bo was an indicator of the CCP's clear stance and firm determination against corruption. However, Bo's case may ironically be a good example of the failure of the CCP's ineffective and paradoxical anti-corruption efforts.

The disclosure of Bo's corruption was an unexpected by-product of personal grudges. In February 2012, Bo's former right-hand man, Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu to seek asylum after some conflicts with Bo. Wang blew the whistle on the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood by Bo's wife, and then the following investigations led to Bo. If there had been no Wang Lijun incident, Bo's corruption may likely never have been uncovered.

The prosecution alleged that Bo took more than 20 million yuan ($3.3 million) in bribes from two businessmen, and embezzled another 5 million yuan ($817,000) from a government building project.

Bo was accused of having committed corruption dating back to 1999 when he was the mayor and party chief of Dalian. Clearly this past corruption didn't stop his political career from shining brightly. Bo became the acting governor of Liaoning province in 2001 and was officially confirmed as the governor in 2003. In 2004, he was appointed as the minister of commerce. In 2007, he gained a seat on the 25-member Politburo and became the party chief of Chongqing, one of the four direct-controlled municipalities.

The question is how such a corrupted official could enjoy continuous promotions without any public investigation for so long? There are two possible answers. Either his corruption was never detected, or his corruption was ignored. The former scenario questions the CCP's anti-corruption capability; the latter questions the CCP's anti-corruption accountability.

The investigation over Bo was actually triggered by a power struggle, not purely by his corruption. As one of the most promising "princelings," Bo had ambition to be the top leader of China. However, he failed in the internal selection and competition within the Party. Rather than give up, he decided to take on the fatal venture of challenging the party's central authority and internal rules, by harnessing his popularity as the champion of the Chinese New Left.

Leaders of the Party perceived Bo's "Chongqing model" of campaigning to revive the Cultural Revolution-style "red culture" to be a political conspiracy, and decided that he had to be phased out of the game. This political mistake by Bo was the fundamental trigger for his corruption probe.

Corruption accusation has become an effective political weapon within the CCP. In 1998, former Beijing party chief Chen Xitong was given a 16-year jail sentence on charges of corruption and dereliction of duty. In 2008, former Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu was sentenced to 18 years in prison on charges of financial fraud, abuse of power and bribery. Although the CCP never admitted that the removal of the these Politburo members had any political causes, it was an open secret that all three cases stemmed from a political power struggle.

Bo's case is an indicator of the CCP's vital anti-corruption crisis. Bo's father Bo Yibo was one of the CCP's pioneer leaders, and Bo was widely recognized as the most promising star of the "second red generation." The uncovered corruption of Bo, along with the life of luxury that he and his family lead, has undermined the CCP's credibility.

The CCP has not yet found an effective way to tackle its booming corruption under its single-party regime, because the so-called "multiparty cooperation system" lacks effective checks and balances. Chinese leaders have realized that anti-corruption is a critical issue for the Party, but without comprehensive and sound political reforms, anti-corruption will likely continue to be a mission impossible for the CCP.

Sun Xi is a Chinese alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, a socially responsible investment analyst and an independent commentary writer based in Singapore.