To the extent Americans are aware of internal developments in China, our knowledge is limited to the fact that the country is huge, that its economy is growing, and growing fast. Beyond that, most Americans draw a blank when it comes to the political processes that shape the country. Case in point: the unusual trail of Gu Kailai, the wife of senior Chinese politician Bo Xilai, who yesterday went on trial and confessed to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
Gu met with Heywood and poisoned him after their relationship soured. They had been commercially linked for years, and once their relationship became more acrimonious, Gu, ostensibly to prevent Heywood from blowing the whistle on her and her family, poisoned him. Her husband, Bo Xilai, was removed from his government posts on the party Central Committee and the Politburo. At this point, you may well be asking yourself, what’s the big deal about this? In most industrialized countries, this is precisely what one would expect when anyone, even the wife of a powerful figure, murders someone.
Well, in China, things are rarely as they seem, particularly when viewing them from a western cultural standpoint. Historically, the elite ruling class of China was not really accountable to the rule of law. Sure, they experienced downfalls from time to time, usually in the form of a political upheavals or purges, but those were far more driven by politics than by the rule of law. If a senior party leader was to be removed, others in power had to find a political reason with which to remove the party in question. Finding a law that they had violated wasn’t so much an option, because, unfortunately, for as much as China is prospering, it’s doing so amidst an environment of extreme corruption.
So if everyone is breaking the rules and you want to remove someone, you can’t use a charge that you yourself would be guilty of. In this case, however, the murder of a foreign national is a bridge too far, even for the inner sanctum of the Chinese Communist party. To look at this event and say that the rule of law is going to prevail henceforth in China would be naive, but, this is the first time that a senior leader had been removed not only for political reasons, but legal ones as well. And that slow, nearly imperceptible shift more towards the rule of law, subtle by western standards, is reverberating throughout the Chinese political system.
In the years to come, such cases will become ever more common, as China continues its transition to whatever it is that it’s becoming. It won’t be a linear evolution, and it won’t always be obvious, but the boundaries of acceptable conduct amongst the ruling class in China is beginning to change.