So it looks like Bo Xilai's trial will start on Thursday. His is a long and sordid story: an ambitious and powerful politician looking to climb to the very top of the CCP pecking order, who ran a deeply corrupt satrap in Chongqing, undone by his wife, who was implicated in the murder of their British fixer, and his security chief, who ran vainly in search of US protection when he realized he was likely the next victim of Bo's political machine.
We know, of course, that he will be "found" guilty. This is a political matter of the highest order - disposing of a once-elite leader of the Party - and the current CCP ruling group will not allow its final resolution to be disrupted by anything like the "rule of law". While it may be true that the Party has chosen to use the legal system as the venue for the denouement of this political drama, even if some sort of regular and lawful procedure appears to be upheld, we all know that the system remains "rule by law" not "rule of law."
And that brings to mind Han Feizi (here is a nice pdf of an introduction to his thought), the man who helped invent the very notion of "rule by law." Han would very much agree that Bo should be punished "according to the law" and done so in a highly public manner, to serve as an example to all, politically high and low, that transgressions will be dealt with severely. Indeed, the primary reason to establish a system of rule by law is precisely to obstruct the political potential of people like Bo and preserve the power of the current ruler. That's what makes Legalism so useful to Chinese rulers across the centuries: it speaks directly to their interest in maintaining power.
Han is quite clear on the greatest danger rulers face:
The only reason the ministers do not assassinate their sovereign is that their parties and cliques are not strong enough. (Watson, p. 40)
Ministers occupy political positions just below the ruler; they are close to power but not in power. Han assumes they very much want to be in power and will use their postilions, if not sufficiently constrained, to seize power. They are smart and capable and thus dangerous. Everything about the legal system, how responsibilities are defined and how accountability unfolds, is designed to limit the possibilities of ministers forming cliques and gaining an advantage that might translate into a decisive move against the top leader.
Just like Bo Xilai. He was developing a unique power base in Chongqing, gaining a repuation as an energetic and creative leader. His style was a bit too dynamic and assertive. He was aiming to gain the top spot, and thus he was a danger to others who were planning how power would be apportioned at the level of the Standing Committee. Had he made it into that rarified club, he would likely have continued to scheme to gain the number one position. As such he would have been a direct threat to Xi, the General Secretary of the Party.
And Han offers advice for how to deal with such a threat:
When cadet houses become too numerous, the royal family will face anxiety and grief. The way to prevent this is to prune your trees from time to time and not let the branches grown too luxuious. If the trees are pruned from time to time, cliques and parties will be broken up. Dig them up from the roots, and tehn the trees cannot spread. (Watson, p. 41).
Although the initial focus here in on relatives, how members of the "cadet houses" might be able to use their family ties to impinge upon the rulers power, I think we can safely assume that "ministers" are elements of those kinds of networks and they, too, should be subject to "pruning."
By "pruning" I take Han to mean the ruler should, from time to time as political necessity dictates, purge this or that high ranking administrator, whether a family member or not, as a preventative measure. This would be above and beyond the usual constraints placed on ministers and lords through the rule by law system, a kind of extra-judicial politial intervention.
And that is essentially what the Bo Xilai trial is all about. It is a "pruning" of the "trees." Bo had grown too big and too powerful. For Xi to consolidate his power, Bo had to be cut down. And on Thursday we will witness (if indeed the proceedings go forward publicly, which itself is part of the political calculations) the start of the chopping.