Case Studies

Bo Xilai: China's trial of the century


The trial of Bo Xilai, a leading political figure in China, made headlines and drew comment from across the world. Many commentators have criticised the trial for its alleged secrecy and procedural unfairness.

International attention focused on what some labelled China’s “trial of the century” – the trial of former leading political figure Bo Xilai for bribery. This appetite for news on the case was fed by regular updates through the Court’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo account, attracting over half a million followers.

Chinese state-controlled press announced this social media storm as evidence of the “rule of law” and transparency, in a country better known for careful political control of both. In the words of artist and Chinese commentator Ai Weiwei (who has himself been on the receiving end of Chinese criminal law): “As China assumes a more central role in international affairs … its leaders seek to establish a reputation for governing society according to the rule of law.” His view, shared by many, is that Bo’s trial showed this to be a “fiction”.

It was widely reported that, in fact, even this historic experiment with openness was heavily censored, with CNN describing the Court’s blog as “a selective drip-feed that sparked questions about its objectivity apparently”.

Real openness of criminal proceedings is a key feature of the rule of law and of open justice. As the saying goes: “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.” Public and press scrutiny safeguard the fairness of the trial and, by allowing the public to see how justice is administered, builds public trust in the quality of justice and the fairness of its outcome.

In a country where the Supreme People’s Court itself proclaims an astonishing 99.5% conviction rate, China is clearly a long way from respecting the rule of law. And what happens when the rule of law collapses? In Ai Weiwei’s words:

“Rather than encouraging party members to be honest or hardworking … the trial has taught them above all to do whatever it takes to stay on the right side of the current leadership. The constitution and the law, even basic moral judgments, hardly figure in their calculations. … Chinese citizens aren’t much better off … Nobody can be safe when values such as human rights, freedom of speech and judicial fairness are sacrificed to serve the interests of political elites.”