Bo Xilai

The Bo Xilai playbook

Richard Harris says Bo Xilai's performance in court was that of a consummate politician who understood attack was his best defence, and gave his all to discredit testimony against him

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 August, 2013, 3:20am

The Bo Xilai trial saw the most effective public defence by a politician of his actions since US president Bill Clinton faced a grand jury over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, casually sipping a diet Coke. Bo, like Clinton a highly experienced and intelligent politician, used every trick in the book, being alternately charming, selfish and ruthless - all basic lessons from the Senior Politician's Manual 101.

Whether Bo is innocent or guilty is irrelevant; his spirited defence is a lesson in how to get out of a scrape, one that worked for elder statesman Clinton. The transcript details from the Jinan court may have been edited but they show enough of the raw politics to impress Machiavelli, if not a grand jury.

The first rule of politics is that attack is the best form of defence; discredit the opposition. The prime prosecution evidence against Bo appeared to be witness-based and by attacking their independence and credibility, Bo sought to embarrass a lazy prosecution.

He said the testimony of his wife, Gu Kailai, was "comical and ridiculous", described her as "mentally unstable", and questioned the "word of a convicted murderer". Xu Ming, a businessman close to him in Liaoning and who was alleged to have provided the family with gifts and foreign trips, was cross-examined by Bo himself. The court transcript described it as "confrontational" and Bo distanced himself, reasonably well, from most of the gifts, including a US$3.2 million French villa allegedly given to his family.

Bo dismissed the testimony of Wang Zhenggang, a high official in the Liaoning provincial government, as "contradictory and irrational". The now wheelchair-bound Wang Lijun, his former police chief who was very close to Gu and the man who ran to the US consulate for cover when the Neil Haywood "suicide" turned out to be murder, was described as an "abominable liar", "two-faced" and "a man without morals". But the best invective was reserved for his lifelong friend Tang Xiaolin, who was described in such un-court-like language as a "crazy dog" and an "ugly person who sold his soul".

A key politician's rule is to create distance between oneself and the guilty parties. Politicians are good at cosying up to success stories, such as sportsmen or astronauts and even better at distancing themselves from losers. So Bo testified that he had rarely met his wife since 2007. He admitted to an affair around 1999, after which Gu spent a lot of time abroad. He also claimed that Gu's business activities were not known to him, saying that Xu was "not his friend but hers".

Separating two allies through the "divide and rule" tactic is another defence strategy to confuse witness evidence. Bo admitted slapping police chief Wang (Wang's testimony was that he was punched hard) because he was supportive of Gu and thought Wang was setting her up. Taking on an element of righteous anger is a good way of collecting sympathy for oneself at the expense of others.

Perhaps the fundamental tool in the politician's armour is the ability to say, "I don't know". Former US senator Howard Baker defined this politician's rule during the investigation of the Watergate break-in as, "what did he know and when did he know it". There are several reports that Bo did not allow mobile phones around him, which encourages claims of ignorance; former president Richard Nixon, by contrast, recorded his conversations and was unable to deny some conversations.

Bo used this tactic as a blanket defence against the family's apparent wealth by testifying that "Gu Kailai's income situation was very good", the implication being that she didn't need him. She had five law firm branch offices, and scholarships covering their son's education. "What reason did I have to worry about them enduring any hardship?"

The amnesia defence of "I can't remember" is another oft-used weapon in the politician's arsenal and was used by Bo, who claimed in court that he didn't recall anything about his son, Bo Guagua's , US$130,000 African trip, which was allegedly covered by Xu. Bo also couldn't remember the gifts or much about the French villa.

A good politician is respectful of authority. Attack must be balanced with an element of self-reflection or contrition. Providing generous compliments, or playing to the gallery, allows for a useful break in the tension. More than once, Bo complimented the prosecution, while in the same breath saying that he had no case to answer.

Bo mentioned early in the trial the good physical treatment he had been given by investigators of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. He admitted "mistakes", on behalf of protecting his family, but said that he had done nothing criminal. He tugged at the heartstrings by saying that he was under mental pressure regarding his confessions - after having been offered "incentives". Good politicians praise those in authority, while attacking and passing the blame on to the vulnerable or already discredited.

In politics, the heady mixture of power and money is attractive to many. But because of that, one is surrounded by enemies. Conflicts of interest and lapses of judgment leave politicians exposed to blackmail and accusations of abuse of power.

Bo used his exceptional ability to take on the court with a shrewd knowledge of the tactics open to a politician on the defensive. His spirited defence shows an experienced politician at the top of his intellectual powers, albeit at the bottom of his political ones. Illuminating and entertaining as it was, it is unlikely to sway the judges.

Richard Harris is chief executive of Port Shelter Investment Management and a former UK Conservative Party candidate, 1996-97.