China makes big show of Bo Xilai trial, but it’s still just theatre
With detailed online transcripts carried by China’s version of Twitter, Beijing is making an unprecedented effort to show its people that the trial of ousted politician Bo Xilai is fair and above board, but the court case is little more than theatre.
Never before has the stability and unity-obsessed ruling Communist Party allowed the gritty and colourful details of such a sensitive trial to be publicised almost real-time to the population at large.
None of this means, however, that China has turned a corner in efforts to push the rule of law and official transparency.
Bo, the 64-year-old former party chief of the southwestern city of Chongqing, has been charged with illegally taking almost 27 million yuan (HK$34 million), corruption and abuse of power and will almost certainly be found guilty in China’s most political trial in decades.
The party is almost certainly preventing any really embarrassing outbursts from Bo from appearing, has banned the world’s media from the courtroom and is certainly not broadcasting it live on national television.
Video: Bo Xilai makes televised appearance in court
Even the “Gang of Four” trial Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing in 1980 for crimes committed during the Cultural Revolution, previously the country’s most dramatic case, was only shown in part on state television.
Jiang was removed from the courtroom several times after shouting down judges and insulting witnesses – a scene the party would never want to risk the whole country seeing with Bo.
The party is simply hoodwinking people with its use of the court microblog, Jiang’s former defence lawyer, Zhang Sizhi, said.
“Making a microblog public is just their ruse, it’s meaningless,” Zhang said.
“Because if you can post microblogs, why can’t you broadcast it live?” he added. “It shows that they aren’t transparent, they are just pretending to be.”
Still, the court’s Sina Weibo microblog has proved a huge hit, and an apparent temporary relaxation of censorship has allowed users to post comments about Bo which normally are swiftly removed, many supportive of his fiery defence and ridiculing the prosecution for relying on hearsay.
“Too funny! I can’t believe they actually believed those casual comments and brought them out as evidence. Are they stupid or do they have some secret motive? Go Bo Xilai!” wrote one Weibo user.
“Looks like he’ll only be sentenced to 3-5 years in the end. Great happiness,” wrote another.
On Thursday, the number of people following the court’s microblog feed jumped from 40,000 early morning to 2 million in the late afternoon.
“This is the most difficult case since the trial of the Gang of Four and Chinese society has profoundly changed over the three decades,” said Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “You can’t have a completely secret trial.”
Reuters had applied to attend the Bo trial, but a court official rejected the request due to limited space – a reason that authorities typically give for politically sensitive cases.
“No one in China believes that Bo is getting a fair trial,” said Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“This is not sufficient to enhance the trust that the citizenry has in its judicial system. This is a very carefully crafted piece of political theatre.”
But some transparency to the trial was better than none, said He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University who has followed Bo’s downfall closely.
“Bo Xilai is, of course, a popular political star, so publishing some of the transcript will allow many people to understand better what’s going on,” He said.
“Many people have serious doubts about this case. He’s a hero to lots of people.”