By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing
The Chinese Communist party would like the world to believe that the forthcoming trial of Bo Xilai will be a triumph of authoritarian self-policing and evidence of its ability to root out a few bad apples.
In fact, the downfall of one of the country’s most senior politicians and the lurid details of murder, sex, money and power that accompanied it have had almost entirely the opposite effect.
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From revelations of massive corruption to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood by Mr Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, the sordid affair has shown the Chinese people and the world that the rot goes right to the top.
For the last three decades, the party has carefully cultivated the perception that, while there may be corruption and wrongdoing at lower levels, the system is governed by clean and selfless elites who live only to serve the masses.
China’s spectacular rise and its success in lifting hundreds of millions out of abject poverty combined with the intense secrecy surrounding senior officials have convinced many to accept this vision of a just and benevolent emperor calling the shots from Beijing.
A year ago, when citizens in the Chinese village of Wukan rose up in rebellion against corrupt local officials and fought running battles with riot police, they continued to insist on their undying allegiance to the country’s top leadership.
In the many small uprisings that continually bubble up across China, the protagonists almost always believe that if the country’s enlightened leaders only knew about local corruption they would descend like a deus ex machina to administer justice.
One senior retired western diplomat who specialised in China for nearly 30 years recently confided to the FT that the Bo Xilai case had prompted an epiphany when he finally realised the top mandarins were just as tainted as officials at the lower levels.
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A string of revelations about the fortunes amassed by other top leaders has followed in the international press, further undermining the idea that Mr Bo is an anomaly.
While senior officials have faced the wrath of the “socialist legal system with Chinese characteristics” before, none as powerful as Mr Bo have ever stood trial in a modern courtroom.
Not only did he sit on the party’s 25-member ruling Politburo, he is also the son of Bo Yibo, a Communist founding father who was once Mao Zedong’s finance minister.
Apart from helping to cover up Heywood’s murder, Mr Bo faces a long list of charges for crimes he allegedly committed over the last 20 years as commerce minister and as the top official in the Chinese cities of Dalian and Chongqing.
He is alleged to have abused his power, amassed a fortune by accepting “huge bribes”, and to have persistently promoted unqualified cronies while carrying on “improper sexual relations with a number of women”.
The country’s tightly controlled state media has rather plaintively heralded these charges as evidence of the party’s “commitment to rule of law”, “farsightedness” and “superb ability to deal with complicated situations”.
The Party also keeps insisting that Mr Bo’s case shows nobody, no matter how powerful or well-connected, is above the law in China.
When historians look back on the Bo Xilai scandal they will almost certainly identify this as the moment when China’s vicious backroom political battles spilled into the open and the myth of the good emperor was shattered.
Far from revealing authoritarian China’s meritocracy and ability to self-correct, the Bo Xilai saga underscores how its leaders believe they are above the law and how little accountability there actually is.
The fact is that Mr Bo’s alleged crimes only came to light after his disgruntled chief of police, Wang Lijun, attempted to defect to a US consulate in February carrying a dossier of damaging revelations and proof that Gu had murdered Heywood.
Chinese, British and US officials say privately that without the involvement of foreign governments Heywood’s murder would probably never have been uncovered and Mr Bo would still be a frontrunner for promotion when the party anoints new leaders at a once-a-decade conclave next month.
As the party tries to pull off an orderly and smooth transition, many are now questioning why Bo was allowed to get away with that long list of alleged crimes for so long.
They are also starting to ask how different Mr Bo really is from the other unelected men who run China.
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