Myriad reasons behind transparency of Bo Xilai's trial

The remarkable transparency by the court is welcome in its own right, but the leadership appears to have calculated its effect carefully

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 4:54am

The trial of Bo Xilai, though arguably China's most closely watched court case in decades, was widely expected to be a highly scripted and predictable affair with a selected group of officials, family members, and state media journalists in attendance but otherwise closed to the public.

It would be followed by a national television news broadcast showing the defendant admitting to the charges, and later a judge reading out a predetermined verdict, if the previous trials of high-ranking Communist Party officials can be any guide.

But Bo's trial, which started last Thursday, has taken on the characteristics of a political thriller film, replete with intriguing twists and lurid details, captivating not just mainlanders but much of the world as well. In a surprise move, the central leadership has allowed developments of the trial to be reported on a court microblog and through social media updates by state media organisations.

Many people have noted that Bo's trial is not being televised as was the trial of the Gang of Four in 1980. The Jinan court has been providing censored - though fairly complete - transcripts of the proceedings, but far from what state media is portraying as a "live feed".

Nevertheless, the amount of information being released is extraordinary and surprising. The detailed revelations of how Bo and his family members took bribes, and enjoyed a privileged life of private jets flights, a French villa and rare animal meat have the mainland's online community hanging on every word.

The most dramatic development has been Bo's combative stand, mounting a spirited defence against all charges, calling his wife insane and a liar, accusing one businessman who claimed to have bribed him of "selling his soul", and labelling Wang Lijun , once his right-hand man who later turned against him, as "two-faced". Bo said that an earlier confession given to the investigators of the party's top anti-graft watchdog, was coerced.

Given Bo's defiant performance - a sharp deviation from the usually highly scripted trials of high-ranking party officials - and the surprisingly high degree of transparency of the proceedings, people have begun to wonder about the intention of the mainland leadership.

Some of the evidence against Bo has turned out to be not very strong - for instance, ownership of the villa allegedly bought for €2.3 million by a businessmen, which forms a key part of the charges.

All this could help win some public sympathy for Bo at a time when the new leadership under President Xi Jinping is seen as keen to use the trial to show its determination in tackling corruption among high-ranking officials.

But the leaders are believed to have prepared for Bo's combative stance - it's part of his personality, and prior to his sacking as Chongqing party chief, his default approach to governing.

Before the leaders had set the trial date, Bo is believed to have written a lengthy letter to the Politburo, admitting to the three charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. He is said to have acknowledged that his misdeeds had tarnished the party's image.

The leaders are believed to have allowed such transparency of the proceedings partly because of Bo's influence. Unlike other senior officials jailed for corruption, Bo is different. He is not only a scion of an elite Communist Party family but also seen as a flag-bearer of the leftist movement on the mainland.

A swift, closed-door trial could anger his supporters and any lingering doubts that Bo was not fairly treated could haunt and burden the party.

In addition, Bo's case has attracted intense interest and speculation since he was arrested last year, but the authorities have kept the details under wraps.

Transparency with the proceedings could be a move to allay suspicions that the entire affair is motivated solely by factional politics.

Some analysts have speculated the leaders were keen to get Bo's trial over so that national attention would not be distracted in the run-up to the third plenum of the Communist Party's Central Committee, scheduled for October. At the plenum, the party's elites are expected to set new guidelines over how to steer the mainland's economy forward at a time of economic uncertainty at home and abroad.

More importantly, transparency will also lend legitimacy to the trial and enhance the public perception of the leadership's efforts to improve the rule of law and jurisprudence. Bo and his lawyers already indicated in a pretrial meeting that Bo would contest all charges against him. But the authorities decided to go ahead with the trial, believing the charges were sufficient to put Bo away for a long time.

Meanwhile, the extraordinary transparency will certainly raise public expectations the authorities will be more open in future trials of high-profile officials involved in corruption.

Let's hope the court microblog will not become a one-off event, like the televised broadcast of the trial of the Gang of Four.