Show trials, purges and executions have always been part of the history of communism. But the trial of Bo Xilai, a powerful leader of the Chinese communist party until recently, suggests that new shows are replacing old ones. Unlike those in the past, this particular show had the trappings of the due process of law. Mr Bo was allowed to defend himself in a court of law. What is more, the authorities took the extraordinary step of putting up large chunks of the transcript on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, thereby allowing the ordinary Chinese a rare look at the trial. Clearly, the official strategy was aimed at persuading the Chinese — and the world at large — that the rule of law and judicial transparency were finally there in the communist regime. A more significant reason could be the party bosses’ anxiety to gauge popular responses to the trial. After all, Mr Bo had a considerable following both in the party hierarchy and among large sections of the people until his fall. But the court drama did not play itself out strictly in accordance with the official script. The careful exclusion of the foreign media from the courtroom and the long arm of the censor nailed the lie about transparency and legal process. Mr Bo’s refusal to plead guilty of the charges of corruption and abuse of power left the official ploy high and dry.
However, the ‘open trial’ did something that the authorities may not have anticipated. It exposed the true nature of the regime and the party elite unlike anything else since the tumultuous days of 1989. True, there were elements of high drama in the love triangle that involved Mr Bo, his wife and a police chief, and in the murder of a British businessman who had shady relations with all of them. But the big picture that emerged from the trial was one of the dark world of unbridled power, corruption, treachery and intrigue. It is as much the world of a powerful party boss in China as of the whole system. But the trial is part of a more significant struggle that seems to be rocking the CPC leadership. Xi Jinping, the new Chinese president and CPC general secretary, has unleashed a fresh campaign to weed out corruption among the party bosses. In communist parties, such campaigns are always the public faces of internal power struggles. Mr Bo will face a predictable sentence; but the real story of the big purges may have only begun.