Secret trial: Jury is still out on how it will affect Xi's leadership

Secret trial: Jury is still out on how it will affect Xi's leadership
The unexpected turn of events augments Mr Xi's image as a man of surprises and possibilities, which could be his most lethal tool.

By right, Chinese President Xi Jinping should now be basking in fulsome praise of his political strength and acumen in orchestrating the downfall of one of China's untouchables.

Instead, misgivings over the solidity of his power base and his rule of law campaign have arisen after China revealed on Thursday that it had convicted former security czar Zhou Yongkang of various crimes and sentenced him to life in prison.

Criticisms over how the Communist Party put Zhou through a secret court trial and meted out a lighter-than-expected punishment for convictions of abuse of power, bribe-taking and leaking state secrets have surfaced among observers and netizens.

In a way, Mr Xi is a victim of his own success and his public image as a leader who almost always gets his way.

Since taking power in November 2012, Mr Xi has become widely regarded as China's most powerful supremo since late strongman Deng Xiaoping, through a record number of leadership positions he collected and created.

His anti-graft and austerity campaigns have also been more aggressive and long-running than those of his predecessors, nabbing more and bigger targets.

For instance, he approved formal investigations against Zhou, who had retired from the Communist Party's apex Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) in 2012, despite an unwritten rule that deems PSC members to be exempt from disciplinary actions.

He also placed retired general Xu Caihou under graft investigations last year though the former Central Military Commission vice-chairman was suffering from bladder cancer. Xu died from his illness in March this year.

Thus, there were some expectations that Mr Xi would put Zhou through a public trial, just like he did with former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai in August 2013 on graft and abuse of power charges.

The Tianjin court decided on a closed-door trial for Zhou as, it said, the charges involved leaking of state secrets. But why was it not possible to hold a partly public trial and leave the sensitive parts behind closed doors?

After all, China held an open court session in September 2012 for Bo's former police chief Wang Lijun for his graft charges and a closed-door session for charges of abuse of power and defection which involved state secrets.

Also, the Tianjin court said in its judgment that Zhou's act in leaking state secrets "did not cause serious consequences", which should weaken its case for holding a secret trial.

The lack of a public trial was more damning in view of the Tianjin court judgment.

It gave a precise amount of total bribes - down to the last three yuan that Zhou and his family had taken illegally - at 129.772113 million yuan (S$28 million) and also elaborated at length how Zhou was given a fair opportunity to defend himself.

The intended message is clear: We had strong evidence justifying Zhou's conviction and sentence and the accused's legal rights were protected.

But if there was strong evidence and due process was observed, why not hold a public trial?

Political reasons were likely at play here. The party wanted to avoid a situation where Zhou might implicate other top leaders in an open trial. Allowing an open trial might also focus public attention on a scandal that has embarrassingly exposed the political struggles within the party.

Political factors were also widely believed to have decided Zhou's punishment, which has triggered criticisms that he got away lightly given how the total amount of bribes involved in his case was nearly five times that in Bo's case yet both men received the same life sentence. Zhou and his family were said to have taken more than 129 million yuan compared with Bo's 27 million yuan.

If true, the political interference in Zhou's court case could set the wrong example for officials down the rungs and weaken Mr Xi's rule of law campaign that pledges to make the judicial system more independent. The damage could have been mitigated by at least a partially open trial, which could build on the gains made by a slew of judicial reforms launched last year to make judges more independent of politicians.

To be sure, there could be some positives for Mr Xi from the handling and closure of the Zhou saga. A secret trial and a lighter sentence may help preserve party unity and buy time and goodwill for Mr Xi to plan his next big reform plan or move on to the next anti-graft target.

Also, in having the trial take place instead of possibly shelving legal prosecution of the case indefinitely, he has at least fulfilled the pledge of not avoiding difficult graft cases. The unexpected turn of events also augments Mr Xi's image as a man of surprises and possibilities, which could be his most lethal tool that leaves political opponents unable to fathom his actions.

For now, one has to wait to see if the positives outweigh the negatives to determine the impact of the Zhou Yongkang saga on Mr Xi's leadership.


This article was first published on June 13, 2015.
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