CHONGQING, China (Reuters) - China’s fallen politician Bo Xilai left a timebomb as a parting gift for the Communist Party leadership that threw him out — the smoldering demands for redress from the many targets of his harsh version of justice in the city he ruled.
For now, China remains transfixed on the fate of Bo and his wife Gu Kailai. She went on trial on Thursday, charged with murdering Neil Heywood, a British businessman at the heart of the scandal that felled Bo, once an aspirant to top power. The verdict will be announced later, as will Bo’s fate.
But after the Communist Party finishes a once-in-a-decade power handover later this year, demands for redress stemming from Bo’s rule could flare and bring pressure on China’s new leaders even as they try to put the scandal behind them.
Heading into 2013, they are likely to face an outcry, said lawyers and prisoners’ families who allege that Bo and his long-time police chief, Wang Lijun, presided over rampant injustice in the name of fighting criminal gangs and corruption in Chongqing, the southwest municipality that was their fiefdom.
“The barrier to dealing with these unjust verdicts now is that there are so many of them,” said Zou Zhiyong, a Chongqing businessman who said his father-in-law Li Xiaofeng is among the once rich or powerful prisoners planning to seek release and redress from convictions made under Bo.
“We’ll certainly appeal, but not yet, because we have to wait and take into account China’s special political environment,” said Zou. “We’ll wait until after the 18th Party Congress. Many cases will come forward then,” he added.
The congress, likely to be held in October, will announce the new leadership that will run China for a decade.
Lawyers and family members of several other prisoners told Reuters they also planned to appeal against their convictions after the party’s power transition.
It is difficult to estimate how many may do so. But one prominent lawyer, Chen Youxi, has said over 700 people were convicted as part of Bo’s anti-crime gang campaign, including over 70 who were executed.
In keeping with its usual reticence, the Chinese government has made little comment on the allegations of misrule under Bo. It removed him from the Chongqing post in March and announced in April that he was suspended from the party’s elite Central Committee and Politburo for “disciplinary violations.”
In March, Premier Wen Jiabao rebuked Bo for Chongqing police chief Wang’s flight to a U.S. consulate, the start of the unraveling of Bo’s career. He only obliquely criticized Bo’s rule in Chongqing.
“Over the years, the successive governments of Chongqing and the people in Chongqing have made tremendous efforts to promote reform and development,” Wen said at the time.
“And they have achieved remarkable progress in that regard. The present Chongqing municipal Party committee and the municipal government must reflect seriously and learn from the Wang Lijun incident.”
After arriving in Chongqing in 2007, Bo, a former commerce minister, turned it into a showcase of revolution-inspired “red” culture and his policies for egalitarian, state-led growth. He also won national attention with a crackdown on organized crime.
His brash self-promotion irked some leaders in Beijing. But his populist ways and crime clean-up were welcomed by many of Chongqing’s 30 million residents, as well as others who hoped that Bo could take his policies nationwide.
Even now, many Chongqing residents still praise him.
“Bo Xilai brought a sense of security here,” said advertising sales manager Yu Kun. “Only two kinds of people hate Bo Xilai — the businessmen-criminals he took down and the corrupt officials he took down.”
Bo has not been seen publicly since his downfall in March. A few days before his dismissal, he defended his policies at a news conference during the national parliament session.
“These people who have formed criminal blocs have wide social ties and the ability to shape opinion,” he said.
“There are also, for example, people who have poured filth on Chongqing, and poured filth on myself and my family.”
Dismissing suggestions of widespread abuse in Chongqing, Bo said: “Although it’s difficult to achieve 100 percent correct, that’s the goal we’ve certainly strived for.”
Zou, the Chongqing businessman, said his father-in-law Li was president of the Chongqing Broadcasting Group, and initially had Bo’s confidence as the ambitious politician sought to bathe the city and himself in effusive propaganda.
But policy rifts between them ended in Li facing bribery charges, harsh interrogation over more than 20 days deprived of sleep, and life in jail, said family, colleagues and his lawyer.
“In Chongqing, there was no presumption of innocence; there was a presumption of guilt,” said Zou.
“Bo had a habit of taking on the most powerful. He didn’t kill a chicken to scare the monkeys,” he added, citing a Chinese proverb meaning to make an example of someone weaker to frighten the more powerful. “He killed monkeys to scare the chickens.”
Although the Chinese government has appeared eager to bury Bo’s career, it has shown little appetite to publicize these controversial cases. Few families or lawyers of those convicted expect swift or decisive replies to their demands.
Bo’s use of the law to silence foes and amass power might have been especially intense, but it also built on the Communist Party’s long-standing use of courts, prosecutors and police to enforce its will. Openly vindicating his victims, could embolden victims elsewhere in China, said several lawyers.
“My guess is that there won’t be wholesale overturning of verdicts, because how could you assume that such injustices are restricted only to Chongqing?,” said Fang Hong, a former Chongqing forestry official sent to a labor re-education camp for criticizing Bo and Wang on the Internet.
“That would be a shock to China’s entire system, so the leadership doesn’t want Chongqing to start a chain reaction,” said Fang, who was released in late June after the case against him was overturned.
Li Xiaofeng’s family, however, said it will not be satisfied with possibly slow and only partial redress for him.
The Chongqing government cast Li as a especially villainous official, using media reports to trumpet his arrest and conviction. Li was “the biggest case of official corruption in Chongqing since the founding of the People’s Republic of China” in 1949, local newspapers said after his sentencing.
Li, 60, was convicted of taking bribes worth a total of 49 million yuan ($7.7 million) and given a commuted death sentence, meaning he faces life in jail.
A colleague of Li, a manager, said he was threatened with torture by state investigators, who told him that he could either provide incriminating testimony against Li or risk seeing his family detained.
Li’s real offence was to anger Bo by resisting his ambitions to turn Chongqing’s television broadcaster into a “red” channel devoted to doctrinaire programs, said the manager, as well Li’s son-in-law, Zou.
“Everyone knew that Bo wanted to take him down,” said the manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing worries that city officials could be angered by his speaking out.
“There were corrupt officials, but Bo also used the law to get rid of dissenters.”
Chongqing officials have declined requests to answer questions about Li’s case and others. But one advocate of Bo’s policies said a push to overturn many verdicts from his campaign against crime gangs and corruption would prove unpopular.
“I insist that the crackdown on organized crime was necessary to rid Chongqing of a malignant force,” said Sima Nan, a Beijing-based television host and online commentator who has continued to defend Bo’s policies after his downfall.
“Bo Xilai took on the collusion between officials and crime gangs, and of course they’re going to come out now and claim injustice. If there were problems, then produce the evidence.”
Several lawyers and family members of prisoners say that under Bo and Wang, Chongqing police and prosecutors made up their minds beforehand, and then used torture and threats of torture to get the testimony they needed for a conviction.
Other methods they said were used included strapping suspects in a “tiger chair” and keeping them awake for days on end; suspending prisoners with shackles attached to the ceiling while their feet barely touched the floor or table; forcing them to drink large amounts of water laced with chili; and administering beatings and electrical shocks.
“At the time, we didn’t dare raise any criticism of these cases prosecuted under Chongqing’s high-pressure system,” said Rao Jianpu, whose brother Rao Wenwei was a law-and-order official in rural Chongqing jailed after posting essays online critical of Bo and the Chinese government.
“That was then, but now it seems that with Secretary Bo gone, many people are willing to speak out,” said Rao, who is helping in a campaign to void his brother’s 12-year jail term on charges of “inciting subversion” and taking bribes.
“There are many cases waiting to be dealt with. They say the number of people who want to appeal is so, so many.”
Claims of gross injustice by China’s party-run police and courts are by no means unique to Chongqing, but Bo’s campaigns have left a daunting backlog of grievances, said Tong Zhiwei, a law professor at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai who has studied Bo’s policies.
“The number of victims and the amount of money confiscated are still difficult to estimate,” said Tong.
“While certainly not everyone jailed was innocent of any crime, the proportion of wrongful cases was indeed very high.”
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan