Beijing’s master choreographers, known for staging the spectacular and seamless Olympics in 2008, did not disappoint with the show trial of disgraced senior official Bo Xilai, who faces charges of bribery and embezzlement. The unexpected sparks on the first day the trial, part of which was broadcast via Twitter, came as a surprise to many in the public, who have become used to closed-door trials in China. Analysts wonder if Bo’s vigorous defense indicates that authorities are losing control in a supposedly controlled environment.
Sina Weibo, or the Chinese Twitter, has previously been used by Chinese authorities to broadcast court proceedings in both civil and criminal cases, but never in high-profile cases of senior government officials. The last time the Chinese people were granted access to the trial of a fallen Communist leader happened in 1980, when Madame Mao was brought to justice. During that trial, which was televised nationwide, she dramatically turned the courtroom into a forum to lash out at her political opponents who had arrested her during a coup. Since then, courts have kept their doors closed. When Bo Xilai’s wife stood trial on charges of murdering the British businessman Neil Heywood last August, the public learned about it only after it was over from a two-minute news clip on TV and a lengthy statement in the Party newspapers.
“The use of weibo during Bo Xilai’s trial is a sign of progress, even though the twitter broadcast is strictly controlled,” says Chen Xiaoping, a New York-based Chinese legal scholar. “It shows that the Communist Party is confident that the court has a solid case in hand.”
Even with the limited access via Sina Weibo, analysts expected the proceedings to be highly scripted—the prosecutor would read out the indictment and Bo Xilai would admit guilt. However, one hour into the trial, the courtroom got dramatic—the 64-year-old Bo, who had been incarcerated since April 2012, launched a vigorous defense. According to transcripts, all of which have been released by anonymous sources twelve hours after the trial, Bo denied having accepted $4 million in bribes, claiming that he was unaware that money and gifts worth millions had gone to his wife and son. When the prosecutor presented a written testimony by his own wife, Bo called it “comic and laughable.” With the court approval, Bo directly questioned a former business ally, and called another real estate developer “a mad dog.” He even recanted a statement that he had made earlier on to investigators from the Communist Party’s anti-corruption organization, citing that he was under “psychological pressure.’’
The unexpected development had the Internet abuzz with speculation. A German Chinese-language radio station characterized the situation as “a movie director’s nightmare of managing a bullying actor.” Hu Pin, a Chinese political commentator in the U.S. believes that Bo’s spirited defense has put the current leadership in an awkward spot. “The Party hopes to use the trial to build a solid case against Bo and change the minds of his supporters,” he says. “Instead, Bo’s open defiance will help invigorate his supporters, many of whom are princelings.”
During a phone conversation, a government official in Beijing disagreed. “The overseas analysts have underestimated the powers of the senior leadership and the prosecutors,” he points out. “Authorities have taken into account Bo’s denials and they already knew how Bo was going to act during the investigation stage. Like a comedy skit on national TV, the trial needs a few dramatic elements to make it real and convincing.”
His comments echo those of bloggers, who believe that Bo’s nasty comments and the heated exchanges among former members of his inner circles will only work to the advantage of his handlers—the ugly fights will trivialize and diminish the political nature of Bo’s crimes. One commentator calls it a “trap” set by authorities that Bo is falling right into. In fact, an op-ed piece in the government-run Guangming Daily on Friday portrays Bo as a hypocrite who betrayed and laid all the blame on his wife and friends to protect himself, and “craftily” denied responsibility in the face of mounting evidence.
One thing is clear—the trial has been meticulously choreographed. According to a legal professional in China, the court has conducted multiple rehearsals and even bathroom breaks were counted in the much-prepared proceedings. The effective control of Bo’s image in court is another example of such careful preparation. Prior to the trial, a blogger morphed Bo’s picture into one of a well-known movie character, an imprisoned Communist martyr raising his shackles above his head in defiance. The spoof poster was widely distributed online. To counter that heroic image, authorities have specifically chosen two Yao Ming-like police guards, who were at least seven feet tall, to escort the 6-foot Bo into the courtroom. By comparison, Bo, who is quite tall by Chinese standards, looked tiny and pathetic.
A commentary in the government newspaper best summarizes the leadership’s intent. “We want to use Bo’s trial to showcase China’s confidence and the efforts by the Chinese people to pursue fairness and justice for all.”
With such control and meticulous choreography, it’s hard to see how confident the Chinese people feel about the fairness of the legal system.