If the Gu Kailai trial last year was the TV pilot, then the trial of her husband Bo Xilai, which ended this week, was the full, follow-up series that topped the ratings, leaving its audience hungry for more.
All the original characters were in evidence: Bo, the man who came within grasping distance of ruling China; Gu, his Lady Macbeth, and Wang Lijun, the sinister police chief from the city of Chongqing who sparked the downfall of all three by entering a US consulate and refusing to come out.
But this series had so much more to give: insights into the way that relationships work at the top of Chinese society, descriptions of the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by Bo’s wife and son, and even a peek into the steely mind of Bo himself.
There were confessions of love affairs too, including allegations of an illicit tryst between Wang and Gu.
HBO script writers couldn’t have crafted anything better, netizens joked. China was riveted.
Yet initially the trial didn’t promise much drama. Most experts predicted it would last a couple of days and follow a tried-and-tested pattern whereby Bo would admit his guilt in exchange for leniency, or perhaps immunity from prosecution for his son, who is living in the US.
No one expected a five-day trial or the court’s unprecedented decision to “tweet” the trial “live” on the popular Sina Weibo platform. In total, the authorities posted 150,000 words – most of them transcripts of what was being said.
And after perusing them all, what did we learn? Firstly, from the fact that the proceedings were posted at all, it is clear that the Chinese government wanted the trial to be perceived as open and fair. From August 22 when the trial began, to this Monday when it ended, the state media churned out commentary after commentary insisting that Bo’s case proves that China follows the rule of law.
Secondly, the Party wanted the case against Bo to be seen in very narrow terms. The actions of other leaders or any notion of systemic problems connected to one-party rule were not up for debate. This was about the actions of a bad apple in the barrel, not an assessment of whether the barrel was rotting from the inside itself.
Indeed, in the accompanying media coverage of the trial, the Party, and specifically President Xi Jinping (with his zero-tolerance anti-corruption campaign) were painted as saviours of the situation.
“Bo’s case shows the central government rules through the rule of law and a determination to eradicate corruption,” an editorial in the People’s Daily proclaimed. “An open hearing is a good opportunity to publicise our laws and to tell officials who believe themselves to be above the law because of their high postion and background to give up their evil ways and insolent thoughts,” the editorial added for good measure.
So did the gamble work? Did Bo emerge looking guilty? And was the trial enough to heal some of the rifts that Bo’s ousting is said to have opened among China’s leading group?
In answer to the last question, the decision to allow the trial to run for five days – the longest of any political leader since that of Mao’s wife in 1980 – and to open it partially to the public gave Bo a platform denied to other disgraced leaders.
It offered him the legal equivalent of an honourable death, say experts, a move which may have been supported by those still sympathetic to his case.
It also gave Bo five final days in the limelight and he took his chance. He was defiant to the last, denying anything that carried a legal charge, with resistance so unbowed that it was hard to hold off the urge to cheer him on.
Certainly many netizens felt that way. “This is a can-do man. We need more officials like him. Shame on those that destroyed him,” wrote one on weibo. Another marvelled: “His logic is crystal clear. He is running rings around the prosecutor.”
Others saw it differently, judging Bo’s behaviour as arrogant and indicative of a man who saw himself above the law, possibly because of his lineage as son of Bo Yibo, one of the Party’s “Immortals”.
At times it was clear even from the transcripts that Bo was speaking to the judge and the prosecutors as if he was still a senior official. Footage on broadcaster CCTV also showed him regularly deploying his trademark smirk.
In their closing remarks the prosecutors called for Bo to be given a heavy sentence, citing his “whimsical” behaviour during the trial and his persistent refusal to admit any guilt. Yet the question of guilt seemed to interest ordinary Chinese considerably less than the salacious details that the case threw up. It was the first time that the public learned officially about the Bo family’s $3 million villa in the south of France, for instance, an unimaginable luxury for most citizens. Likewise of son Bo Guagua’s jet-set lifestyle, said to have been funded by the billionaire Xu Ming.
Amazingly, these details were provided mostly by Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, who submitted video testimony showing herself thinner and more lucid than during her own trial, in which she was found guilty of the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
Gu said Bo knew about holidays paid for by Xu – the Dalian tycoon even funded Bo Guagua and a group of friends to travel to Tanzania by private jet – and he also knew about the French villa too.
Gu even cited a piece of meat from a “rare African animal” that Bo junior brought back from his Tanzanian jaunt. Apparently, the Bo family feasted on it for a month.
But Bo dismissed her evidence as “lies” and called her “insane”, although he also said that he still had feelings for her.
Another shock was the arrival of Bo’s former right-hand man Wang Lijun on day three of the proceedings.
Providing evidence for the abuse of power charge – Bo was also charged with bribery and embezzlement – Wang explained how he had raced to the US consulate in Chengdu in February last year because he was afraid for his life.
According to his testimony, Wang had confronted Bo with his suspicions that Gu had killed Heywood, only for Bo to remove him from office on the premise that he was mentally unstable. The prosecution then presented medical documents in Wang’s name that Bo was said to have faked in order to secure his dismissal. But Bo claimed he did so on the order of “higher authorities” — hence not abusing power himself – but that remark was quickly scrubbed from the official record.
Of all the witnesses, it was Wang that riled Bo the most and the last day of the trial provided a possible explanation. His former police chief had been secretly in love with Gu Kailai, Bo claimed, and Gu may even have reciprocated. It was Gu’s final rejection of Wang, and not any plot against him, that was the true reason why he fled to the consulate, Bo said in dramatic flourish.
It didn’t make much sense but as a cliffhanger, it was a good one. Bo’s problem is that this was almost the final episode. All that’s left now is the verdict, expected in a few weeks.
© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.
Sponsored by HSBC.
The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.