It was dubbed China’s trial of the century and in the end it did not disappoint.
When Bo Xilai, Chongqing’s former Party secretary, took to the stand in Shandong province yesterday he was every inch the maverick he’d been before he disappeared from view 17 months ago – when he was detained amid allegations that his wife, Gu Kailai, was responsible for the death of British businessman Neil Heywood.
In the last few weeks almost every expert had predicted that Bo would play ball in accepting his guilt in return for leniency. The trial was seen as a formality.
But from the moment Bo spoke, dressed in a crisp white shirt and with recently dyed hair, it became clear he was going to go down fighting and that the trial was not going to be the dull, one-morning affair that many expected.
Contrary to what he’d earlier confessed to Party discipline officials, Bo denied charges of bribery – said to amount to Rmb27 million ($4.4 million) – and refused to accept allegations of corruption. That was despite Xu Ming, billionaire businessman and former ally, turning up in person to testify against him.
But Bo appeared to be at his most dismissive when the court read out a statement from his wife Gu Kailai, accusing him of using ill-gotten gains to fund their family’s extravagant lifestyle. Gu was found guilty of the murder of Heywood last August and is serving life in prison. Heywood is thought to have assisted Gu and Bo in transferring large sums of money out of China and to have helped get their son, Bo Guagua into a private school in the UK.
“I find Gu Kailai’s testimony ridiculous and laughable,” said Bo.
Bo also stands accused of abuse of power for his handling of Wang Lijun, the former Chongqing police chief who fled to the US consulate in Chengdu in February 2012. That issue is likely to be debated today.
But perhaps the bigger surprise from yesterday was the fact that the court in Jinan – or, more likely, China’s top leadership – had decided that details from the trial should be tweeted live on Sina Weibo. Several lower level Chinese courts have “tweeted” information from hearings before but not in such detail and never when a case has been so sensitive.
“We should welcome such an open hearing,” wrote Limeng Bu Mengni, a magazine journalist with almost 54,000 followers online. “We hope this will be common practice for all important court cases in the future,” he wrote.
Others had their doubts.
“If they are so transparent, why don’t they put it on TV,” asked one man. Others pointed out that the weibo feed could even be perceived as a step backwards. “When I was little they used to put important cases on TV,” said one person, referring to the 1980 trial of Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and leader of the Gang of Four, which was shown on television.
Experts say it is the authorities’ desire for Bo’s case not to appear like a show trial – as Jiang Qing’s was – that has led to the decision to cover it via Sina Weibo instead.
Live television coverage may also have been risky for a man known for his ability to work the media with a snappy turn of phrase and roguish demeanor.
And Bo seems to have lived up to his reputation. “His denial of the charges today shows the Party still can’t control him,” He Weifang, professor at Law at Peking University told WiC.
Professor He also says that the Party had to give Bo his day in court in order to convince his supporters – of which there are still many – that he is receiving a fair trial.
Bo now seems to be grasping his opportunity to battle back against his accusers.
“There is no doubt that he will be found guilty but it seems Bo is fighting to decrease his punishment,” Professor He said.
The verdict is expected soon.
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