Bo Xilai’s Trial by Microblog: China’s Biggest Court Case Gets Under Way

In an unusually open move, a Chinese court tweets proceedings against the country's most high-profile prisoner

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A screen shows an image of the trial of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai before a press conference in Jihua Hotel on Aug. 22, 2013, in Jinan, China

Bo Xilai never shied away from spectacle. In a country ruled by determinedly colorless cadres, he was a charismatic flash of light. Tall and film-star handsome, Bo favored fast cars and flashy suits. As party boss in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, he ruled with outsize, seemingly unfettered ambition, promising to purge the city of graft and gangs, and launching massive public-works programs. He cloaked his campaigns in the language of revolution, sending bureaucrats back to the farm, Mao-style, and bringing thousands of people together to sing patriotic songs.

Today the erstwhile showman featured in a drama of a different kind. In a courtroom in the eastern city of Jinan, far from Chongqing, Bo Xilai faced charges of abuse of power, embezzlement and taking bribes. The scene in Jinan, Shandong province, was carefully set: roads were closed and police lined the streets. At 7:10 a.m., a convoy of police cars and a minivan arrived, Reuters noted, but Bo himself was not seen. With the courtroom closed, observers had to rely on the court’s own microblog for information. “The chief judge announces the trial has begun and has called the defendant Bo Xilai to the court,” read an early missive. Hours later it published photographs of Bo in a wrinkled white dress shirt, dwarfed by two guards, his face deadpan.

(MORE: Crossing a Red Line: The Fall of Bo Xilai)

The fastidiously choreographed trial marks the latest, perhaps final, twist in what has become one of the People’s Republic’s most politically charged and compelling cases in decades, a lurid affair that has cast unwanted light on the inner workings — and fractious infighting — of the ruling elite. The scandal broke last year when Chongqing’s police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to a U.S. consulate with stacks of documents and, as later emerged, tales of a murder involving Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai. Wang was later charged with defection, abuse of power and accepting bribes, and sentenced to 15 years in jail. Gu, meanwhile, was convicted after a one-day trial of murdering English businessman Neil Heywood. The fact that Wang and Gu are in prison, their cases closed, has done little to stem the tide of interest, with new revelations and rumors spinning forth week by week.

For the secretive, censorship-loving Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Bo saga has been an awkward exercise in crisis p.r. China’s new leaders are faced with the delicate task of disciplining one of their own — of calling him out in a way that doesn’t undermine the very system that enabled his rise. Bo, like many of the country’s party brass, is a Communist Party aristocrat. His father Bo Yibo was a contemporary of Mao. This revolutionary cred, combined with the enduring popularity of his Red Revival campaign in Chongqing, makes him a difficult man to critique, especially at a time when the party, led by Xi Jinping, is undertaking its own “rectification” campaign, invoking CCP glories past to spur a crackdown on corruption.

(MORE: Daddy Dearest: The Son of Bo Xilai Defends Him)

Perhaps this is why the court seemed so willing to provide information about Bo’s alleged deeds. High-profile political trials are usually cut-and-dried, closed-doors affairs. In Jinan today, the doors were closed, sure, but the court’s Weibo account proffered up a detailed account of the charges facing Bo. The court said Bo took bribes totaling more than $3.5 million from officials at two Chinese companies, noting that he took the bribes “either by himself or with the aid of his wife and his son Bo Guagua.” He is also accused of abusing his power after he learned that his wife was suspected of murder, the court said. Bo has been disputing the evidence in court and has said that he made previous confessions while his mind was “a blank.”

Whatever else is revealed as the trial continues, a guilty verdict is all but assured. Microblog or not, it is clear that nothing has been left to chance. Indeed, China’s censors seem to be working overtime. A blog called Offbeat China parsed netizens’ comments on the court’s feed and found they hewed rather closely to the party’s script. “Support rule of law! Firmly oppose corruption!” one user wrote obligingly. But not everyone was so willing to parrot slogans. “I’m shocked to death after reading the comments,” said another. “They are as uniform as the military parade on national day.”

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

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@nhqz @TIMEWorld Not sure they tweeted. Looks like they used Weibo "court’s Weibo account proffered up a detailed account of the charges"