This Week in Asia

Secret arrests and hurried trials of politicians and tycoons belie Beijing's 'rule of law' vows

For five days in August 2013, the trial of Bo Xilai, once a rising political star slated for China's top leadership, gripped the nation and made headlines around the world, and not just for its political intrigue, bribery and murder.

More importantly, the trial of the former member of the Communist Party's Politburo and former party chief of the Chongqing municipality was then also hailed as "a victory for rule of law in China", not only by state propaganda but also by some optimistic legal professionals at home and abroad.

The optimism was raised by the unusual transparency in which the trial was conducted. The proceedings in Bo's trial were broadcast online and described in great detail through the court's official account on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

By Western legal standards, the trial was still deeply flawed, but by Chinese standards, it was seen as a sign of Beijing's commitment to its elusive goal of rule of law, raising expectations that it could be the start of a trend.

Sun Zhengcai was put on trial on April 12, accused of taking 170 million yuan in bribes over 15 years. Photo: Reuters

Now fast forward to April 12. Sun Zhengcai, another rising political star once groomed for China's top leadership, stood trial on charges of taking more than 170 million yuan (US$28 million) in bribes in a span of 15 years. In a remarkable contrast to Bo's case, Sun's trial lasted less than half a day in a court in Tianjin.

The court merely announced the trial on Sina Weibo in the morning, shortly before the trial started. It did not bother to broadcast any of the proceedings.

After the trial, the official media largely carried a report of a few hundred words, saying that prosecutors and Sun's lawyers had examined the evidence and cross-examined two witnesses. It concluded that Sun admitted his guilt, repented for his wrongdoing and said he sincerely subjected himself to the court's judgments. The court ruling is expected this month or next.

By contrast, following Bo's trial, Xinhua released a report of more than 10,000 words detailing the court proceedings, including Bo's own defence.

Bo Xilai stands in court in Jinan, eastern China's Shandong province. Photo: AP

In terms of political significance, Sun's trial was no less than Bo's. Sun was also a Politburo member and Bo's immediate successor as the party boss of Chongqing. Before his downfall in July last year, Sun was considered a strong candidate to become China's premier.

The sharp contrast between the trials of the two disgraced politicians is the latest sign of China's struggle with the rule of law. The recent speedy and secretive trials of Sun and other high-profile tycoons have served to confound some of China's commendable progress in judiciary reforms over the past five years, as well as Chinese leaders' repeated vows to uphold the state constitution and promote the rule of law.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power late 2012, he has launched an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign to strengthen the party's legitimacy and his own power. Along the way, he has taken several meaningful steps to advance judiciary reforms. For one, a lifelong responsibility system has been introduced to govern the cases handled by police, prosecutors and judges, which means they would be held responsible for their decisions for their entire life. This is aimed at helping reduce "meddling" by local officials and prevent the miscarriages of justices that have led to wrongful convictions.

Another significant development is the 2016 introduction of a so-called trial-centred reform of criminal procedures, aimed at enhancing the court's key role in fact-finding, identifying evidence, protecting rights of all interested parties and impartial judgments.

It is meant to replace the widely criticised practice of investigation-driven criminal procedures in which the courts heavily relied upon files and records produced by the police to deliver verdicts.

According to Xinhua, the reform came after a series of wrongful convictions came to light and undermined the credibility of the judicial system.

The parents of Huugjilt, who was executed in a controversial 1996 rape and murder case, mourn their son in front of his grave in Hohhot, capital of north China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region. Photo: Xinhua

One example which triggered widespread social outrage was the wrongful conviction and execution of a teenager called Huugjilt in Inner Mongolia. He was found guilty of rape and murder in 1996 and executed, but he was declared innocent in 2014. The real killer was sentenced to death in early 2015 and a number of policemen, prosecutors and judges were punished because of the lifelong accountability system.

While those reform measures were definitely a step forward to help restore public confidence in the judicial system, Sun's trial and other recent high-profile cases seem to suggest that China was also taking two steps back.

In the case of Sun, he was accused of taking more than 170 million yuan in bribes in a span of 15 years, and he was convicted in less than half a day on the testimony of two witnesses. That is not convincing by any means, and seems to contravene directly the directive of trial-centred criminal procedures.

Another example is the trial of Wu Xiaohui, chairman of Anbang Insurance Group, one of China's largest insurers and owner of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan.

Chairman of Anbang Insurance Group Wu Xiaohui was charged with illegally fundraising 65.25 billion yuan (US$10.4 billion) and embezzling 10 billion yuan in insurance premiums. Photo: Reuters

Standing in a Shanghai court on March 28, Wu was charged with illegally fundraising 65.25 billion yuan and embezzling 10 billion yuan in insurance premiums.

For all the scale and complexity of the charges, Wu's trial lasted less than a day, from 10am to 7pm, and the court is expected to give a verdict in the next few months. Wu is expected to receive a lengthy jail sentence.

The court reportedly broadcast the proceedings live on Sina Weibo, but according to the reports, the prosecutors mainly presented evidence in the forms of documents, records and recorded statements from regulators and Anbang employees. There appeared to be no witnesses available for cross-examination despite Wu contesting all charges.

Xiao Jianhua. Photo: EPA

Wu's conviction is expected to be the first of several Chinese tycoons known as "big crocs" to be prosecuted in a government crackdown on freewheeling deal makers. The next one expected to go on trial is Xiao Jianhua, chairman of the Tomorrow Group, which controlled a wide range of businesses from real estate to banks to brokerages. Xiao was reportedly taken away from his holdout in a luxury apartment building in Hong Kong in January 2017. Although the case generated intense press coverage in Hong Kong and elsewhere, the Chinese authorities have never publicly acknowledged that he was arrested or is under investigation. The same is true of the case involving Ye Jianming, chairman of one of China's largest oil companies. He has massive investments in the Czech Republic and serves as an adviser to its president Milos Zeman.

Ye Jianming. Photo: Handout

Ye, a tycoon with a mysterious business background, disappeared from public view this year and authorities have not acknowledged his whereabouts nor given any reason for the alleged investigation against him.

By all accounts, Ye and Xiao may belong to a group of tycoons who vanish for months, if not years, only to eventually emerge to stand trial on charges of illicit business practices.

If the trials of Wu and Sun can be any guide, they would also expect to go through rapid court procedures and end up with lengthy jail sentences.

The fact that those tycoons have been treated in such cavalier fashion by the law can hardly inspire confidence in the private sector, which has seen investment fall in recent years.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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