Bo Xilai’s fierce defence in court during his five-day long trial in Jinan has captivated the Chinese public in a way unforeseen by those who wanted to stage a seemingly transparent and legitimate final act to his spectacular downfall.
In a front-page commentary, the Communist Party’s leading newspaper The People’s Daily proclaimed that former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo’s trial showed the party’s determination to fight corruption.
But online the narrative has shifted from allegations of Bo’s corruption to his misgivings about his family, showing that large parts of the Chinese public have been convinced by his self-portrayal as an unfortunate victim of his wife’s dealings.
Bo said in court he had caught Chongqing’s police chief slapping himself in the face so as to demonstrate his love for the municipal party secretary’s wife of more than two decades, Gu Kailai. Bo admitted partial responsibility for causing Wang Lijun’s later attempted defection to the US consulate in Chengdu due to the revelations in his private life.
“I would have given Wang a good trashing,” the Beijing-based economist Jin Yanshi wrote in a microblog post.
“Bo Xilai’s political ideas were based on Mao Zedong, but his politics were far less heartless and cruel than Mao’s, and in the end he fell because of a shrew, a vile servant and an unfilial son.”
Hundreds of similar comments have appeared on microblogs, some calling Bo “handsome”, “wise” or even a “victim”.
“A green hat has saved Bo, a green hat has saved the princelings,” Zhou Fengsuo, a student leader in the 1989 Tiananmen movement now living in exile in the US, commented in a tweet. A “green hat” is a common Chinese reference to a cuckold.
Data by Baidu, China’s equivalent to Google, indicates that the wider Chinese public has also taken on Bo’s narrative and is shifting its interest from Bo himself towards Gu Kailai. Public interest expressed in search terms on Baidu in Bo’s wife and son has increased much faster than interest in Bo Xilai himself.
Over the last week, online references to and searches for Bo Xilai grew by 1,780 per cent. However in contrast, searches for his son Bo Guagua soared by 4,601 per cent, while searches for Gu Kailai increased by 8,030 per cent.
This contrasts with a focus on Bo Xilai in media reports. News headline appearances of Bo Xilai increased by 1,450 per cent over the last week. Those of Bo’s son Guagua and wife Gu Kailai increased by only 100 per cent.
Nationally, Bo still attracts more online interest than his family, but the gap is narrowing. In Guangdong province, Bo Xilai ranked as the fourth most popular topic, according to Baidu algorithms. Guagua ranked third, and Gu Kailai ranked second.
Li Zhuang, a defence lawyer who was famously jailed for challenging Bo’s extra-legal crackdown on crime in Chongqing, said that Bo had “often played the emotional card” in his final statement.
“But he did not talk about the key question – whether or not he took money. How this can be [legal] headway for him?” Li asked in a microblog post commenting on Bo’s final arguments. “He only said that he didn’t know, wasn’t sure, didn’t understand or didn’t remember. This is a passive defence.”
Video: Bo trial ends, China prosecutors demand heavy sentence
For Xu Xin, author of Poetic Justice, a collection of essays on emotion and the law, the diversion was very much intended. “Do you sympathise with him? Should he be given a lenient sentence?” asked the outspoken legal scholar, who has previously fiercely criticised Bo’s purges in Chongqing.
Xu noted that Bo revealed “the world’s supreme ‘green hat’” at a moment in the trial when Wang Lijun or Gu were not able to answer to the allegations. “Of course this was a litigation strategy to gain sympathy and weaken Gu and Wang’s testimony,” Xu wrote in a microblog post on Monday.