Corruption Trial Begins For China's Bo Xilai

The former high-level Communist Party official is accused of bribery and stealing millions of dollars. Host Scott Simon speaks with Cheng Li, director of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations at the Brookings Institution, about the trial.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The trial of a former high-flying Chinese politician began this week. Bo Xilai is accused of corruption, bribery and stealing millions of dollars, and the possible implications for China's leadership could be huge. We're joined now by Cheng Li. He's the director of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Thanks very much for being with us, Mr. Cheng.

CHENG LI: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Help us understand who Bo Xilai is.

LI: Bo Xilai was a heavyweight politician; was a rising star three months ago and he want to be one of the top seven most powerful figures, maybe even the top leader. But 18 months ago, his police chief arguing that Bo Xilai want to kill him because Bo want to cover up the murder case involve his wife - I mean, his wife involved with a British businessman called Neil Heywood.

Now, of course, that charge, it's not in the court. They change the charges, but now they focus on corruption issues.

SIMON: What's your reading as to why that happened?

LI: Well, this is certainly could be a deal between the leadership and Bo Xilai because the leadership does not want it to go that far because this would be a wave of criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, so the trial would not be a trial of Bo Xilai but a trial of the Chinese Communist Party. But the irony is Bo Xilai is famous for being anti-corruption during his tenure as leader of Chongqing, the largest city of China, because he launch a very effective campaign against what he called the mafia.

SIMON: I must note, I speak as a Chicagoan, I can't tell you how many people have been elected to public office in Chicago and elected governor of Illinois as reformers and boasting of their incorruptibility and they wind up standing trial for corruption charges.

LI: Well, contradiction exists everywhere, but the Bo Xilai is a man of contradiction and he himself was persecuted along with his father during the Cultural Revolution. But now all of a sudden he's said the Cultural Revolution is great. He launch a campaign in a few years ago really continue to uphold the Maoism. And also he present himself just before he was arrested as a leader of the people. So that itself is quite ironic.

SIMON: To what degree does the Chinese public know about this trial?

LI: Based on some statistics, it's only about somewhere between 15 million to 20 million, still very small in the country...

SIMON: Yeah, in China, yeah.

LI: ...with 1.3 three billion people. But the important thing, maybe it's good for Chinese leadership is people after 18 months, they are not so much interested in that case. People are more interested in some other issues, particularly the economic problems that China now face.

SIMON: So you don't expect this trial to lead to a lot of Chinese questioning the legal system or the basis of their leadership?

LI: Well, in that regard it's already happen. In (unintelligible) trial the real significance, and it's still too early to say. That remind me Premier Zhou Enlai, one of the famous leaders in China, when he was asked what do you think of the French Revolution. He said that too early to tell. Certainly, we're in the middle of history. We are far too early to judge the real significance, real impact.

SIMON: Ching Li is the director of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations at the Brookings Institution. Mr. Li, thanks so much.

LI: Thank you.

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