Chinese Communist "princeling" Bo Xilai, expected by many to take a key leadership position in the leadership transition of 2012, was expelled from the Communist Party in September after a career that saw him as Mayor of Dalian City, Minister of Commerce and Party Chief of the Chongqing municipality. His wife Gu Kailai received a suspended death sentence in August 2012 for murdering British business partner Neil Heywood.
In full: Standing eye-to-eye with Bo Xilai
Only a handful of people saw the landmark trial of former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai at first hand. Here, one of them, a mainland lawyer, gives Post readers an insight into what went on behind closed doors in that Jinan courtroom
Jinan is famous for its Baotu Spring, which still runs as strongly as it has done for 1,000 years. Compared with nature’s timescales, the rise and fall of an individual is nothing, but can nevertheless stir deep feelings and divergent opinions. The ups and downs, rights and wrongs, settling of scores and resentment hold an abiding interest, as if an invisible hand of fate is directing lives and controlling destinies.
All-out to defend himself
The courtroom was about 200 square metres in size, with seven rows of seats able to accommodate 110 people. There were four video cameras mounted in the corners and an LCD display panel on two of the walls, positioned near the centre of the courtroom next to the public gallery. Images from different angles captured by the four cameras were shown on the two display panels. There were also smaller screens on the desks before the judges, the public prosecutor, the defence lawyers and Bo Xilai, which all showed the same images simultaneously.
This courtroom must have been specially designed for the case as normally such facilities are not made available. The set-up meant that people in the public gallery could clearly see the expression on Bo’s face, even though he sat with his back to them. They could also see photocopies of documents produced in evidence by both prosecution and defence, as well as the images of Bo testifying.
Admission to the public gallery was very strictly controlled. No one was allowed to take in even a pen and note paper, and security checks were conducted again on anyone returning from the toilet.
Bo Xilai made an all-out effort to defend himself throughout the trial. He looked extremely focused, unyielding and very tough. He said that he was not able to understand the evidence and case materials (presented in 190 volumes) until lawyers read them through with him and explained verbally. The process took around two weeks.
Bo took careful notes during the trial. Whenever each individual charge was brought up, he pulled out a transparent document folder and then took memos and papers from it before challenging the evidence or stating his opinions. In one episode, when the case on charges of bribe-taking charges was concluded, the court decided to move on and hear the corruption charges. Bo immediately said the trial would have to resume the next day as he had not prepared materials relating to the corruption charge with him. Only when Bo had his bag checked and the materials were found did he agree to continue.
The pile of document holders accumulated by Bo must have been a foot high. He had marked many of his documents in different colours, showing he was well prepared for the trial and a very organised person.
Many observers have been impressed by Bo’s clear trains of thought, his precise presentation skills, quick responses and unwavering determination. This was in marked comparison with many other officials who usually weep in the witness box or simply give up the right to defend themselves at trial.
It would be easy to draw the conclusion that Bo was arrogant and opinionated. Indeed, he admitted in his final statement that these traits are a weakness in his character. In the past, his clear mind, precise arguments and quick thinking made it impossible for political partners or subordinates to debate with or convince him. Also, a certain lack of humility made it seem that his political decisions were somewhat arbitrary and authoritarian. As a result, Bo failed to “bend” when his “Sing Red, Strike Black” campaign in Chongqing met with opposition from the elite class.
Famous lawyer Chen Youxi had long been concerned about Bo’s “Strike Black” campaign. In his essay “Discussion About Think Tank”, Chen described the campaign as having no support among senior officials. That opinion proved correct and showed that Bo’s subordinates obviously did not have the abilities or standing needed to communicate with him on an equal footing. They were seen as inferior, not advisers whose ideas and opinions would be listened to and respected.
Bo’s quick thinking stands out
Bo said he had been induced to make confessions, while he tried to defend himself by saying that he had written “vaguely, roughly remembered…” in his previous testimony. But this drew a retort from the prosecution, who said: “Since the defendant said investigative authorities had ‘induced somebody into making confessions,’ then how could Bo only ‘vaguely, roughly remember?’” Bo was quick to respond, saying “you have all made a logical error. You think that I did not accept being induced to make confessions, so you think you did not try to induce me into making confessions. This allegation does not hold water.”
Bo only admitted to some of the facts in his own written testimony, completed during the investigative stage of the case, and denied others. Because of this, the prosecution accused him of being “contradictory and admitting to the facts favourable him while denying those that put him at a disadvantage.” Bo responded, saying: “The prosecution has been wrong in their logic again. Do you expect a self-written testimony to contain facts that are totally correct or totally wrong? In fact, a self-written document can contain facts that are partially correct or partially wrong. This is entirely possible.”
Bo was more concerned about the accusation of corruption than that of power abuse.
Obviously, Bo made all-out efforts to counter the accusations of bribe-taking and corruption, while appearing more relaxed in defending himself against the third accusation of “abuse of power”.
When the time came to speak for himself, Bo reiterated that he had been living a simple life and had no material desires. He also stressed that he “had not brought disgrace to his family tradition.” He cited two occasions on which he was still wearing a pair of woollen trousers his mother bought for him overseas in the 1960s. This showed how much Bo cares about his image and being seen as not corrupt.
There was another episode not on the official record. When the court was hearing about Dalian tycoon Xu Ming paying airfares for Bo Guagua, the younger son of Bo Xilai, the defence produced 11 invoices they considered to have discrepancies of format. The lawyers claimed employees of Xu Ming had used some of the invoices to claim airfare payments by others in the name of Bo Guagua, in an attempt to soften the accusation of bribery against Bo Xilai. The latter was very angry on hearing that because he was determinedly trying to prove his innocence. Bo thought his lawyers’ argument could suggest he might be involved in bribery relating to the money stated in other invoices. Therefore, he loudly told his lawyers: “Without my consent, you must not confess to anything on my behalf. Not even a small amount.” His lawyers did not emphasise this point again afterwards.
The law was Bo’s weapon in the dock
As the accused standing in the dock, Bo defended himself with points of law. Contrary to the approach used during his “reign” in Chongqing, he shocked everyone in the courtroom with his firm grip of the spirit of the rule of law, substantive legal principles, and what constitutes a crime. Therefore, we could infer that when Bo was in power in Chongqing, he had a clear concept of the rule of law and knowledge of how an accused person could be protected legally. It becomes thought-provoking when an official knows what is correct but still neglects the law and has wantonly ordered widespread arrests. That applies even more when he tries so-called “criminals from gang-like groups” in violation of the Principle of the Criminal Procedural Law. (The phrase “gang-like groups” is used, not “gang,” because the Chinese government does not admit to the existence of gangs on the mainland). It is clear that some officials really have been “ruling” with the use of concepts they do not agree with or know are wrong. This may be the deepest-rooted problem in Chinese society at the moment.
When the trial started, Bo said: “An influential media body gave some comments on my case. It said my case has ‘involved unusually large amounts of money with unusually complicated details.’ The comment is close to declaring me guilty even before the trial begins. This doesn’t conform to the principles of democracy, the rule of law, justice, and fairness.”
Legal professionals could not agree more with this strong statement. Any accused person would agree too that nobody is guilty until proven. Also, nothing can be used as evidence to convict someone until verified by the court.
When I talked about this with lawyer Li Zhuang, he said: “How about me and the way I was framed in Chongqing?”
Li was arrested on December 13, 2009. The next day, the China Youth Daily published an article headlined “Almost 20 Caught in the Case of Lawyer Fabricating Evidence”. In response, lawyer Chen Youxi wrote an article entitled “Rule of Law Sinks as China Youth Daily Criticises” which aroused sympathy in the legal sector. Chen Youxi’s main argument was that government officials on the case appeared to be too bureaucratic and were allowing the media portray the suspect as guilty, even though the trial had not yet concluded.
According to details of Bo’s case which have come to light so far, he was aware of Li Zhuang’s case – although he may not have known the full details as outlined in the article. Bo should not have personally asked someone to write the article and send it to the press. Would Bo know of this later? Could he still claim he hardly had any knowledge of it? If so, why did he not make any comments to rectify wrong impressions?
Before the case had been heard, public security officials unilaterally released to the press unverified facts in order to secure support in terms of public opinion. Such a procedure is not unusual, but it can serve to “hijack” (influence) a trial, painting innocent people as guilty and making it difficult to reverse cases of wrongful conviction. This practice was quite common when Bo was in power in Chongqing. But, fortunately, this time many media bodies have upheld their professional standards by not publishing “approved” press releases provided by Chongqing’s public security authorities.
Sitting in the public gallery, I couldn’t help wondering if Bo would now regret what he had done to Li Zhuang. I only hope that, one day, it will be possible to interview Bo Xilai in person and ask him about this.
Checks and balances
Bo knows well the checks and balance among the public security, procuratorate and judicial authorities
In cross examinations, the prosecution accused Bo of “denying multiple crimes that he had committed, although there was a large amount of solid evidence”. They said that Bo also denied the notes and testimony he had written in court and that he must be severely punished according to law as the crimes he had committed were extremely serious, though he refused to plead guilty. The prosecution said there were no statutory mitigating circumstances. When defending himself, Bo said: “I hope the prosecution will not see my opinions as bad behaviour or attempts to change my previous testimony. Our country’s legal system has a mechanism of checks and balances between the public security, the procuratorate and the judicial authorities to prevent the occurrence of unjust, false and erroneous cases and to make sure the court doesn’t hear only one side of the story.”
His statement was so impressive that any legal professional would agree and be likely to applaud.
However, what about the joint bench formed in Chongqing years ago between the public security, procuratorate and judicial authorities to crack down on organised crimes? Could Bo claim no knowledge of this when, seemingly, he violated the rule of law? Had he on any previous occasion stressed that the mechanism of checks and balances between the three authorities would be implemented strictly and according to law and that the three bodies would handle cases without interference, so as to prevent unjust, false and erroneous cases? Nothing related to this has ever been disclosed.
Bo appeared composed, smiled during the trial, and tried his best to put forward well reasoned arguments. When speaking in court, he was calm and rational – except when describing Tang Xiaolin and Wang Zhenggang, whom Bo referred to in derogatory terms as thieves and robbers.
On the day the court passed sentence, Bo looked slightly thinner, but was in good spirits. He kept a diplomatic smile and demonstrated self-restraint until the verdict was read out. Then, he gave way to rage and shouted that: “The court did not accept all the plausible points raised by me and my lawyers.” Bo was immediately handcuffed and taken away before he had finished talking. This outburst seems to show he had never anticipated such a verdict.
Everybody in the public gallery remained silent and did not seem to know how to react to Bo being taken away. The trial ended, but the verdict upset onlookers. After all, Bo had been acting like a gentleman, and he was not young. The scene was strangely reminiscent of what had happened to Li Zhuang: his lawyers, Chen Youxi and Gao Zicheng, tried to prove his innocence, but their views were all ignored. This had an added touch of drama because lawyers’ views were also ignored in many anti-triad cases in Chongqing.
Often, an accused person only understands the importance of the law when standing in the dock.
Lawyers, while frustrated about this at times, can only hope the Bo case serves as a cautionary reminder to other officials, but there is no knowing if they will get the point.
As a lawyer, I have also handled corruption cases. When the officials under arrest felt they had been unfairly treated, I would usually ask them how they felt about the law and lawyers before and after they entered the detention centre. They all expressed regret for neglecting the rule of law and despising lawyers when they were in power. But that realisation only dawned when they were already in custody. Like Bo Xilai, they were then no longer in a position to uphold the rule of law.
I really hope to interview Bo Xilai in future, just to ask him what he thinks about the rule of law before and after the trial and what his expectations now are. In legal circles, there is a private joke that they hope Bo head the judiciary in future because now he would help protect the status of the legal profession and lawyers’ rights and interest.
Chen Youxi once wrote an article entitled “The Rule of Law Should Be A Shield For Everyone”. I think this can serve as a suitable footnote for the trial of Bo Xilai. We can certainly ask if, throughout the proceedings, Bo used the law as a shield to protect himself.
Impressive court trial
Overall, what was impressive about the trial was that the prosecution, defence and Bo Xilai all performed well and the presiding judge also conducted events with authority.
There was also the element of real-life drama as the stories involving different people were revealed. These included the relationship between Bo and his eldest son Bo Wangzhi; between Bo Wangzhi and his stepmother Gu Kailai; and between Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai. The trial also revealed how Bo Xilai initially trusted Wang Lijun, how the latter betrayed, and how trust and friendship turned into hatred. All of this made observers lament how life can be full of unexpected changes and problems, which can lead to all kinds of regrets.
Throughout the court proceedings, Bo Xilai did not blame Gu Kailai, although her murder case was mentioned and her testimony was read out. Rather, Bo acknowledged what his wife had done, showed concern for her, expressed understanding of her situation, and suggested continuing affection.
One point, though, should be clarified. According to the official trial transcripts, Bo said “Gu had become crazy when she said that she had a solemn feeling when killing someone. She said she felt like a national hero and the assassin Jing Ke trying to assassinate the tyrannical Emperor Qin.” The clerk did not in fact record those words. Bo Xilai actually said: “Investigators told me that Gu had become crazy, saying that she ‘had a solemn feeling when killing someone. She said she felt like a national hero and the assassin Jing Ke trying to assassinate the tyrannical Emperor Qin. I don’t know why she said that. But since you [investigators] think she was crazy, why then could you use a crazy person’s testimony against me?”
During a recess on the second day of the trial, Bo might have been told that the public had thought that the statement had been made by him. So, when the court trials had resumed, he made a declaration, saying: “The statement was not made by me. It was made by the investigators. My family has ended up a tragedy already. I don’t want you [investigators] to use any more investigative methods to ruin my family.”
Other details about the trial were fully recorded. For example, Bo stressed that he was still deeply in love with his wife Bo Kailai as they had been married for 27 years. Bo praised Gu, saying: “At the end of the day, I still think Gu is a cultured, knowledgeable woman.” As for Gu’s accusations against Bo, he said: “She is a weak woman with financial problems. She could only improve her situation by reporting the guilt of others. And I am the only one she could report.”
In his final statement, Bo made his affectionate call to Gu. He said: “I think I want to tell Gu, my wife, that I have been told that you have accepted a lot of money. This is wrong. I have also been told that most of the money you have accepted is legal. I hope you will adjust your attitude towards this.”
In addition, Bo talked about why Gu had added his surname “Bo” to the front of her full name. He recalled and said: “I learnt this only six months before the mishap happened to her. I thought at the beginning that she was only joking. But I still don’t know why she added “Bo” to her name.”
The defence lawyers performed well in cross-examinations. Lawyer Li Guifang, in particular, demonstrated his resourcefulness. However, during the cross-examinations, the lawyers just repeated the views they had raised in the earlier cross-examinations. They highlighted the discrepancies in the evidence again while failing to give specific viewpoints as to whether the evidence produced had constituted criminal offences. Generally, defence lawyers would give their viewpoints during the debate sessions as to whether certain acts are guilty or not. For example, they would point out that certain accusations lack sufficient evidence and thus are unsubstantiated or do not constitute a crime. But the two lawyers did not do so. This has left the public puzzled if they had been acting under pressure.
Allowing the accused to make a final statement is a standard procedure.
In his final statement, Bo mentioned his family and revealed his loving and caring side. First, he emphasised to his brother and sister that he was not a corrupt person and had not disgraced the family.
Then, he said: “I also want to tell my two sons, Wangzhi and Guagua: I miss you two very much.” Obviously, he had so much more to talk to them. But he choked with sobs and could not continue.
Finally, he told Gu that he hoped she would be able to adjust her attitude for the long time ahead.
Bo’s personal issues have led to a drastic change to his life now. However, nothing would have happened if Gu Kailai had not killed someone or dealt with Xu Ming, and if Bo had not put his trust in Wang Lijun. The trial also revealed that Bo did not live a happy life. He was plagued not only by his extramarital affairs but also by the relationship between Gu and Wang, as well as the old scores between Gu, his ex-wife and elder son. His arrogant and opinionated character shows his lack of love and affection when he was young. This is why he has failed to show empathy and humbleness to other people. All this, exactly as what he said, is a tragedy.