Bo Xilai and the Rule of Law

This blog is banned in China, but I thought I would post something about the scandal involving Bo Xilai, a senior member of the Communist Party who fell from power after allegations of corruption and murder surfaced earlier this year.  I used to do some work in China as part of my school’s program in Beijing, and I remain keenly interested in what’s going on there.

When the rule of law develops in a culture, we could imagine that happening either in a top-down or in a bottom-up way.  From what I remember about legal history in England, the story goes something like this.  Ordinary criminal defendants got little or no process as we would understand that concept.  In high-profile treason trials, though, defendants were afforded more protection because of their status and because the Crown was concerned about the legitimacy of any guilty verdict.  Eventually, the innovations and practices that developed in the treason trials seeped down to the ordinary trials.

In China, the evolution is running in the opposite direction.  If you’re an ordinary defendant, you seem to get some reasonable protections.  (I would say, though, that this depends a lot on what part of the country that you’re in.)  If you’re really important, though, you vanish into the Party’s secret justice system.  Then, months later, you get a show trial where you confess.  This is what happened to Bo Xilai’s wife, one of his key political hatchet men, and will probably happen to Bo himself.  The thought, I guess, is that the prosecution of garden-variety crimes does not threaten the one-party state, whereas corruption among the elite does.  At some point, though, this two-track criminal justice system (at least one with such a wide difference) will collapse to the benefit of the rule of law.  Or so I hope.

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1 Response

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Could it stabilize into a two-tiered rule of law, say if the elites’ trial process were somewhat more open? If a person in a position of greater responsibility and power has fewer procedural protections, is that necessarily contrary to the rule of law? After all, even in the US, we have status-based differences in procedure, say for members of the military. In a country with such a long tradition of corruption, and such distrust of officials among the greater population, a two-tiered system might even be stabilizing, and create more respect for law. I’m assuming, though, that the rules of the game — e.g., what protections they’d be giving up — would be knowable in advance by the elite tier, which maybe isn’t the case now.