By Mick Krever and Claire Calzonetti, CNN
Bo Xilai, a Chinese politican beloved in his hometown, was once considered a top contender for his country’s leadership; now, after a dramatic and sudden fall, he is on trial for corruption and abuse of power.
He stands accused of not only taking millions of dollars in bribes, but also of covering up the murder of a British businessman by his own wife.
But to one veteran China watcher, Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution, the trial says more about China’s leadership than it does about Bo.
“The leadership are focused on corruption,” Li told CNN’s Hala Gorani on Thursday, as Bo’s trial began in the city of Jinan. “That itself makes sense from the leadership perspective because they don’t want to further review all these terrible things happening in China among Chinese elite, especially some of the princelings.”
Princelings are the children of China’s Maoist revolutionaries, of which the new president, Xi Jinping, is one.
“We should remember that Bo Xilai was caught not because of a corruption charge,” Li said. Rather, it was the bizarre defection of Bo’s police chief to a U.S. consulate – and the murder of a British businessman that his wife is accused of committing – that brought him down.
Li said that Bo was originally charged as well with “possible obstruction of justice,” but that that charge was dropped.
“The liberal intellectuals, particularly legal professionals, are very cynical about that trial,” Li said. “They think that Bo Xilai deserves more severe charge, accusation, rather than this focus on corruption.”
But the focus certainly is on corruption, both in Bo’s case and writ large, something that Li said puts the Chinese leadership in an awkward position.
“Many people in China believe Bo Xilai is not that corrupted compared with some other leaders,” Li explained, “and actually Bo Xilai is famous for being anti-corruption during his tenure in Chongqing.”
If it seems like a confusing state of affairs, it may just be indicative of that state of China as a whole.
It stands at a crossroads between further government reach and further liberalization, being pulled by the old-guard Maoists and the new-guard liberals, who want to see the country open up and reform.
“China,” Li said, “is in a very dramatic moment in its history.”
Whether China can quiet the most vocal criticism will, like so many things, come down to the economy, Li said.
“Ultimately it depends on whether they can really promote economic reforms to make the middle class happy, make more people join the middle class,” Li told Gorani. “So certainly they want to close that issue, the Bo Xilai case, and move forward.”
But economic reform may not be possible without some uncomfortable self-reflection of the leadership.
“In today’s China, economic reform requires political change,” Li said, “because the problem like state monopoly and corruption are related with the economic … structure by state-owned enterprises.”
So is Xi Jinping, the new president whose intentions are still so shrouded, up to that task?
“I think he will react to the public opinion,” Li said. “If the demand gets more moment, if there’s a more general consensus that the party should reform itself … he will go for it.”