OK, this is a bit far-fetched, but bear with me....
I have been absorbed these past two days with the Bo Xilai trial (an 18 minute video backgrounder by WSJ here). On Wednesday night (Thursday morning Jinan time) I followed various twitter feeds and live blogs as Bo took the stand and rejected the charges against him. He described the testimony of one prosecution witness as: "...the ugly performance of a person selling his soul.” And today (Friday, August 23rd), when confronted with an 11 minute video of his wife providing evidence against him, he brusquely dismissed her: "...she’s crazy, she always tells lies.” Bo is obviously not going quietly.
And this raises all sorts of questions about what is going on here. On the face of it, it is hard to believe that the Party leadership is happy with this turn of events. The case is revealing seamy details of how the CCP elite uses its power to amass and conceal vast wealth. And Bo is not simply admitting that he is some sort of bad apple (the Neil Heywood murder was pinned on his wife). He is rejecting the very idea that he has committed any offenses here and, in doing so, is suggesting that he is not so different than Xi Jinping or Wen Jiabao. Indeed, the discomfort of the powers-that-be might have been expressed in the variation in access to information. On the first day of trial, the local court provided regular Weibo tweets and timely transcripts. On the second day, information was more tightly controlled. Perhaps some worries in Zhongnanhai?
It is also hard to believe that the orchestrators of this extraordinary bit of political theater were not aware that Bo would be defiant. And if they did know that, what did they think they were going to gain politically from the image of an unbowed Bo beaming out to the world? It is likely that Bo's stature among his many Maoist-esque sympathisers is only growing stronger from this performance.
So, the politics of all this are far from settled. There is much here that will be re-imagined and reincarnated in the future. It's all rather sordid and corrupt. Hard to see how anyone in the PRC leadership, especially Bo himself, comes out of this a hero. But it's possible.
In striking a pose of defiance, Bo has taken the first step toward redemption. He is rejecting the idea that he is somehow different from others at the very top of the power heirarchy. But to gain the upper hand in moral-political terms, he has to take another step: assert that his fall has transformed him. If he comes out and says something like: "yes, now I see how immoral this entire lifestyle has been and I reject it and will live a simpler, more upright life from here on." And if he follows that with a call for all of the other corrupt high officials to also renounce their abuses of power and embrace righteousness, he could retain his political viability. He would be the man who changed, the elite politician who had reveled in the fruits of corruption but who now is tranformed by adversity into the one honest man at the top. And if he did that he could call on some Confucian imagery to help him along.
Redemptive transformation is a key aspect of Confucian moral theory. We all struggle as we work to do the right thing in the world. We all make mistakes, we all do wrong at various times. But the whole point of Confucianism is perfectibility: we can do good again. If we recognize our past and current transgressions, we can do better moving forward. This is why Confucius and Mencius tirelessly preached to the political elites of their day: they believed that corrupt and devious power-holders could be shown the folly of their ways and be turned to right action.
Both Confucius and Mencius point out that the sages of old made mistakes, but when they did err, they owned up publicly. Here is Analects 19.21 (Hinton):
Adept Kung said: "Mistakes of the noble-minded are like eclipses of sun and moon: they make a mistake, and it's there for everyone to see; they make it right, and everyone looks up in awe."
This image is repeated in Mencius 2B.9 (we might take such repetitions as a kind of emphasis). When asked by a follower, "Then even sages make mistakes?", Mencius is said to have replied (Bloom):
"...when the noble persons of antiquity made mistakes, they corrected them, whereas the noble persons of today persist in their errors. The mistakes of the noble persons of antiquity were like eclipses of the sun and moon. The people could all see them. Once they had corrected their mistakes, the people looked up to them. And do the noble persons of today only persist in their mistakes? No, they also go on to make excuses for them."
That is a possibility that presents itself to Bo Xilai now: he could distinguish himself from the "noble persons of today" (the irony of Mencius is palpable...), who not only persist in their corruption but make excuses for it, by correcting his faults and gaining a certain moral charisma. The people would look up to him.
Self-rectification is a hallmark of Confucian leadership, as per Analects 13.6 (Hinton):
The Master said: "A ruler who has rectified himself never gives orders, and all goes well. A ruler who has not rectified himself gives orders, and the people never follow them."
But to become that guy, that guy who others want to follow without orders, Bo needs to make a public display of his moral transfomation. He needs to go large in owning up to the immorality of his earlier life, like an eclipse of the sun. It's not clear if he will be that guy. His personality might keep him from accepting such humiliation. But the political payoff could be significant.
OK, it may seem strange that a sleazy Party boss who had been positioning himself as a political heir to Mao (singing red songs and all that) might be recreated as a Confucian gentleman. But similarly strained analogies have taken hold in China's not too distant past. Peng Dehuai, a hardened revolutionary general who had supported the Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957, spoke truth to power against the Maoist insantiy of the Great Leap Forward in 1959 and was later lionized a a latter day Hai Rui.
The circumstances now are quite different, and it's hard to see Bo as a contemporary avatar of Hai Rui, but Confucianism has historically been quite forgiving of elite malfeasance - if it is followed by rectification. There might still be some Confucian consolation for Bo yet.
His trial in Jinan is quite close to Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius himself. After the inevitable determination of his guilt and his sentencing, if Bo asks for copies of The Analects and Menicus to take with him to prison, who knows what political rehabilitation might be possible.....