The show trial in China featuring Bo Xilai (薄熙來), the swaggering, media-savvy former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary of Chongqing, veered anomalously into improvisation.
Before proceedings began, the conventional wisdom was that Bo’s trial had been carefully scripted and rehearsed to portray a forlorn and penitent sinner confessing his crimes and apologizing to the CCP.
However, the historic five-day trial dispelled any notion that Bo would go quietly to his cell in Beijing’s infamous Qincheng Prison, where China’s fallen top leaders are incarcerated. He challenged the prosecution vigorously, defending himself with a feistiness that surprised nearly all who read the transcripts released by the court in real time on the trial’s first day.
Bo dismissed one of his accusers as having “sold his soul.” He characterized testimony given by his wife, Gu Kailai (谷開來), now serving a suspended death sentence for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood in 2011, as “comical” and “fictional,” and he called her “crazy.”
Throughout the trial, Bo flatly denied most of the corruption charges, often professed ignorance of the facts and claimed to be unable to recall any details of the matters in question. He even retracted his confession to the CCP’s anti-graft agency, blaming mental stress for his admission that he accepted bribes from a man he called “soulless” in court.
In his closing statement, he dropped a bombshell: He claimed that Wang Lijun (王立軍), his former police chief and henchman (and a “vile character”), was secretly in love with his wife.
The trial transcripts create an impression of a man who, had he not gone into politics, would have excelled as a trial lawyer. Bo made the prosecution look sloppy and incompetent.
However, anyone who believes that the courtroom drama in the provincial capital of Jinan will determine the trial’s outcome (the verdict and sentence will be announced next month) is seriously mistaken.
The CCP’s leaders have already decided that Bo is guilty and must spend years in jail (the scale of Bo’s alleged bribe-taking ensures a sentence of 15 to 20 years).
A logical question to ask is why the CCP allowed an unprecedented degree of openness at the trial. The two most recently purged politburo members were tried in secret, as were Bo’s wife and his former police chief.
The optimistic view is that China’s new leadership wants to demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law and fairness. However, that is a naive interpretation. While the trial proceedings on the first day were refreshingly open by Chinese standards, that quickly changed. Transcripts were not released in real time on subsequent days, and they omitted some crucial details (for example, Bo claimed that CCP representatives threatened to execute his wife and prosecute his son if he refused to cooperate). Perhaps worried that Bo’s defiant behavior was winning the public relations battle, the official media also launched a blitz savaging Bo’s character and all but pronouncing him guilty.
Even more disturbing, on the second day of the trial, the Chinese police formally arrested Xu Zhiyong (徐濟永), a human rights lawyer who was leading a campaign to force mandatory disclosure of the wealth of senior officials and their family members. The Chinese government has also begun a ferocious crackdown on social media, arresting prominent activists on dubious charges.