Chinese Opera: Bo Xilai is Defiant in His Starring Role

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Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images

Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced politician Bo Xilai, gives a recorded testimony during his trial at the Intermediate People's Court in Jinan, Shandong Province on August 23, 2013

Ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai struck a defiant tone on the second day of his high-profile trial, denying charges of corruption and snapping pointedly at statements made by his wife.

The temerity being shown by the former party boss of Chongqing — China’s and indeed the world’s largest municipality — is proving an unexpected twist in a country where trials of disgraced officials are normally cut and dried affairs. Also remarkable is the court’s decision to broadcast the proceedings, via microblog, to millions of Chinese.

China’s state-backed media moved quickly to commend the court. “Information about Bo Xilai’s trial has been delivered in an accurate and timely manner,” read a representative commentary, published Friday by Guangming Online.  The proceedings have “displayed the new central leaders’ confidence in political rule, law enforcement and fighting corruption.”

(VIDEO: As Disgraced Bo Xilai Goes to Trial, Disgraced Chinese Official Still Has His Fans)

They were less enthused, though, by Bo’s performance. “His arrogant demeanor seems to suggest he thinks the trial has nothing to do with him and he is above all the accusations,” said Guangming Online.  CCTV News shared the sentiment, lamenting that Bo failed to show  “remorse or fear before the law.” In court later, Gu denounced his wife, Gu Kailai, as “crazy” and said she often told lies. He didn’t stop there, telling the court that Gu said the killing of a British businessman, for which she was convicted, made her feel as “heroic” as  Jing Ke, who famously tried to kill an emperor.

The reaction of the state-controlled media comes as no surprise. Bo’s case is the most politically sensitive since the 1980 and 1981 Gang of Four trial that saw Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, and three other senior leaders tried on television. The scandal erupted last year when a top Bo aide, Wang Lijun, fled to a U.S. consulate claiming to have information about a murder involving his boss’s wife. Gu was eventually found guilty, after a one day trial, of murdering Briton Neil Heywood, and Wang was charged with defection, abuse of power, and bribery.

For China’s new leaders Bo’s case is a conundrum. How do you tar one of the Chinese Communist Party’s erstwhile brightest without tarring the Party itself? Bo led a high-profile Red Revival during his time in Chongqing. He also spearheaded an aggressive crackdown on graft and backed huge public works projects. His work in Chongqing, combined with his status as the “Princeling” son of Communist Party luminary Bo Yibo, make him a tough target, especially for President Xi Jinping, who is himself  in the middle of leading a Party “rectification” campaign that draws heavily on socialist themes. “I’m from Chongqing, and all I know is that [Bo] brought a lot of good changes while in office,” wrote one person on Weibo. “He did a lot of good things for the people when he was in Dalian and Chongqing,” wrote another, adding, “Nowadays, which official is not corrupt?”

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The courtroom drama, which is taking place in the northeastern city of Jinan, has focused rather tightly on allegations that Bo Xilai took bribes totaling several million U.S. dollars — but in a country awash in tales of officials on the take, people are neither surprised by the allegations nor the sums. Such behavior is merely another tiresomely familiar facet of the staggering wealth of China’s ruling elite.  (A 2012 New York Times investigation found that the family of former Premier Wen Jiabao had “billions” in hidden riches; Bloomberg news found that Xi Jinping’s family itself amassed a “fortune” in real estate and investments.)

China’s leaders are no doubt keen to wrap things up before October, when officials will meet for the third plenum session of the congress, and to move forward with their plans to reform the economy and fight corruption.  The court says a verdict is expected in September. So while it is too soon to know how this particular Chinese opera will end, this much can be said: Bo Xilai sang a defiant libretto today, and somehow it didn’t ring true.

—With reporting from Gu Yongqiang in Beijing and Jennifer Cheng in Hong Kong

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