historic echoes: the gang of four and bo xilai’s upcoming trial

On November 4, 2012, the ruling black box Chinese Communist Party Central Committee bleeped that Bo Xilai would be tried in criminal court, neatly removing the last obstacle to the opening of the 18th National People’s Conference.

Bo Xilai’s dramatic fall began on February 6, 2012, when Chongqing’s “attack the black” hero, Vice Mayor Wang Lijun sought asylum in the US Consulate in Chengdu. At the time, it was thought that Bo Xilai might actually join China’s highest organ of power, becoming a Member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau, of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee (政治局常委). On September 28, 2012, Bo Xilai lost his Party status. Indeed, the black box released an official missive, The Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Decides to Revoke Bo Xilai’s Party Status and Dismiss Him from Office  (中共中央决定给予薄熙来开除党籍、开除公职处分).

We now know about the murder of Neil Heywood, the trial and sentencing of Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai and the FBI’s help in repatriating his son, Bo Guagua. We have replayed the soap operatic laments of his first wife, Li Danyu and the Ivy league graduations and beef mogul career of their son, Li Wangzhi. Inquiring minds want to know: what else is there to learn from the Bo Xilai incident?

According to a post by Canadian Home (加拿大家园) Bo Xilai’s trial matters because it is not simply a corruption case, but also a political case. Moreover, the “Sing the Red, Attack the Black” campaign explicitly invoked the Cultural Revolution. Consequently, in preparation for Bo Xilai’s trial, Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and Xi Jinping re-established the precedent of the Gang of Four trial. Thus, the Bo Xilai incident illuminates the contours of a neat (if unsuccessful) reversal of history. Deng Xiaoping came to power by sentencing Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen. Likewise, Bo Xilai attempted to grab power from the reformers with a strong return to Maoism.

Yet another echo of the Cultural Revolution: In 1981, “the conscious of Chinese law”, Zhang Sizhi (张思之) represented the Deng’s political rivals, the demonized Gang of Four. Over the next decades, Zhang Sizhi has represented some of China’s most famous dissidents, including democracy activist Wei Jingsheng, sociologist Wang Juntao who advised students during the Tian’anmen Square incident, and Zhao Ziyang’s secretary, Bao Tong. Several days ago, Zhang Sizhi gave an interview, asserting Bo Xilai’s right to defend himself and to have an attorney. However, Zhang Sizhi also said that even with a proper defense, Bo Xilai would be convicted, the question of this “legal show” is simply: will Bo Xilai receive the death penalty?

All this anti-Cultural Revolution positioning reminds us of the extent to which the legitimacy of Reform and Opening has been based on the delegitimization of the Cultural Revolution, even as the heroic status of Deng Xiaoping was also very much based on his status as a PLA general. It also reminds us how seriously Standing Members take their absolute authority and why Bo Xilai did what he did in a gesture to join the black box club at China’s center. After all, the PRC is a mere 63 years old and thus for many Chinese the relevant and only political question remains: who is the true heir to Mao Zedong’s legacy?

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