If there’s one lesson to be drawn from the salacious, five-day trial of fallen Chinese princeling-politician Bo Xilai, which concluded on Aug. 26, it’s this: the Chinese government gets this whole Internet thing. Displaying a media savvy at odds with the leaden propaganda statements usually released in Communist Party–run publications, court officials in the eastern city of Jinan have provided an eager public with a slew of online transcripts of China’s most riveting courtroom drama in decades.
On Monday, Bo, a Politburo member before his downfall last year, was quoted in his closing statement mounting a defiant final defense in his trial for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. “All the written testimony I signed was done against my will,” he said, according to the officially released transcript, which is only a partial rendering of the courtroom proceedings. “The investigating staff have worked with a lot of effort … and compiled more than 90 volumes of evidence … but how many of these 90 volumes have anything to do with me?”
The verdict will be announced at a later, unspecified date. In the meantime, releasing selective examples of Bo’s bold courtroom performance on Weibo, China’s hugely popular microblogging service, has been surely designed to foster a sense of transparency about the remarkable judicial proceedings. Trials are usually closed-door affairs in China, particularly those of disgraced Communist Party cadres whom the state would hardly wish to gain public sympathy. Yet the court testimony that kept streaming on the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court’s microblog has allowed Bo to emerge with one of his most important qualities intact, that of a Chinese politician with a rare sense of Technicolor showmanship among a cavalcade of colorless leaders. Bo’s alleged brutality and extralegal excesses while helming the cities of Dalian and Chongqing earned him the wrath of some Chinese reformers. His showy populism, however, garnered him many admirers among the broader Chinese public.
Despite nearly a year and a half of detention, Bo, 64, defended himself in the trial with his characteristic rhetorical swagger. “The lowest type of television soap opera could not possess this kind of plot,” Bo said in his closing statement, a fitting recap of one of the strangest episodes in modern Chinese politics, in which his wife was convicted of murdering a British business consultant; his deputy fled to a U.S. consulate and was later jailed for defection, among other offenses; and Bo himself was purged just as speculation mounted that he soon might, during the nation’s once-a-decade leadership transition, join the inner circle of men who run China.
The details gleaned from the transcripts are certainly sensational. The prosecution alleged that Bo and his family accepted lavish gifts from business associates, including a French villa and a chunk of rare African beast to feast upon — the kind of animal was not specified, but the meat was apparently brought back to China by Bo’s son Guagua, after he was gifted a holiday to Africa by a Chinese businessman. In one of the tawdriest details that materialized on Monday, Bo appeared to imply that there were romantic flickers between his deputy Wang Lijun and his wife Gu Kailai. (In earlier court testimony, Bo said he and his wife were estranged because of an affair he had conducted more than a decade ago.) Part of the trial was devoted to ascertaining whether, in one combative episode, an incensed Bo had punched Wang or merely slapped him.
China’s leader Xi Jinping came to power late last year promising to attack official corruption. Surely one message the party wants to send with Bo’s trial is that it is deadly serious about its antigraft campaign. Yet the former Chongqing party chief has not been charged with more serious crimes that some believe he committed during his reign over the southwestern metropolis. And even as members of the public have savored the examples of alleged excess aired during the Bo court saga, there’s little public doubt that his downfall has as much to do with his clash with other Chinese politicians as with a true cleaning of the Communist Party stables. The Bo trial may be best defined as a political triumph, not a judicial one.
To wit: even as the Bo trial unfolded in Jinan, authorities rounded up several bloggers, social-media activists and journalists, just the latest detentions in a summer during which dissent has been stifled by the Chinese state. If these individuals are eventually charged for supposed crimes that range from fabricating rumors and starting quarrels to soliciting prostitutes, what are the chances they’ll receive a fair trial?