“China’s Macbeth” Bo Xilai Gets Life in Prison

September 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The story of fallen Chinese politician Bo Xilai had everything – affairs, embezzlement, bribes and scenes from a lavish lifestyle. Orville Schell, of the Asia Society, said Bo Xilai’s story is that of a Chinese “MacBeth.” The Oxford and Harvard-educated son of one the “Eight Immortals” of the Revolution.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In China today, a once-powerful politician was sentenced to life in prison for bribe taking and embezzlement. Bo Xilai, a former member of the ruling Politburo was handcuffed and taken away after being convicted of taking more than $3 million in bribes. He used the money to pay for a lavish lifestyle, including a multi-million-dollar villa in France.

For more about this, we’re joined by Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. Thank you for joining us. Why was this trial so significant in China?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well it was not only an isolated case about one official who was corrupt, but a very high official whose father was one of the “Eight Revolutionary Immortals” that were part of Mao’s revolution.  o this sort of reached back into the deep recesses behind the veil of high party politics.

Bo Xilai was a threat to other leaders because he saw the power base that was outside of the consensual kind of backroom leadership agreements that usually decide who rises. He sought to rally a popular following. And this was very threatening to others in the top leadership.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Was this an embarrassment to China overall when it comes to–this is the private lives of some of our most powerful politicians?

ORVILLE SCHELL: i think it was sublimely embarrassing, because not only is he a high politician with a very high visibility sign at Oxford and then at Harvard, but his father was a very high visibility revolutionary. And he, too, spent 11 years in prison, was rehabilitated, and it looks now like he will go to the same prison, Qincheng, that his father, Bo Yibo, went to, which is sort of paradoxical.

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HARI SREENIVASAN: So, can we expect this life sentence to be carried out, or perhaps he will be pardoned a few years from now in kind of another chapter in his miraculous recovery.

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, you know, it’s very hard to say in China. If things remain as they are, politically speaking, with the Chinese Communist party largely in control, I think he’s not going to have much of a rehabilitation. But the world works in mysterious ways, and China has frequently undergone these major tectonic changes as after Mao. So it’s very hard to know.

He’s a very able, very smart man who has a substantial following despite his indiscretions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Should the U.S. be paying attention to this?

ORVILLE SCHELL: I think the U.S. knows a lot about this case because his police chief in the city of Chongqing where he was the party secretary defected for a day and a half to the Chengdu consul general and spilled the beans–

HARI SREENIVASAN: To the U.S. consulate?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Yes. And properly I think the U.S. has said very little about it. Because if there’s one thing that agitates China, it’s sort of the U.S. interfering in China’s internal affairs. They know a lot, they paid a lot of attention, but they’ve chosen just to be silent.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are the kind of longer-term consequences? It seems that some of these court transcripts were actually made public in this process. Is this the government saying, here are our opportunities to be more transparent?

ORVILLE SCHELL: I think they had to have a certain transparency in this trial to convince his supporters that he wasn’t just railroaded. On the other hand, they wanted to limit the transparency because didn’t want to besmirch the party too much with too much lurid detail. And indeed there was quite a bit — about affairs, embezzlement, bribes, et cetera.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s a made for TV movie. Orville Schell, thank you so much.

ORVILLE SCHELL: My pleasure.