circus act

The first day of the Bo Xilai trial offers up a slew of surprises

August 22, 2013
August 22, 2013
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The Jinan Intermediate People's Court's website carries a photo of former Chinese Communist Party rising star Bo Xilai standing trial on charges of taking bribes, embezzlement and abuse of power at the court in Shandong Province on Aug. 22, 2013. (Kyodo via AP Images
They might be giants.Kyodo via AP Images

The first of the two-day trial of disgraced Chinese Communist party official Bo Xilai was closely followed on—where else?—China’s microblogging platform Sina Weibo, which also happened to be the main source of information about the trial, thanks to an official courtroom feed. While most elements of the trial were carefully stage-managed, it wasn’t exactly the victory parade for China’s ruling politicians that many expected. That’s because of a few surprises:

People learned what was happening in the courtroom in real-time 

The official Sina Weibo courtroom feed (link in Chinese; registration required) broadcast transcriptions of what was happening in court, with what appeared to be little or no censoring. “It was almost an open trial,” said Edgar Yuen, a professor of journalism at United International College in Guangdong.

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A journalist takes pictures of a screen displaying a court's microblog page showing disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai standing trial inside the court, in Jinan, Shandong province August 22, 2013. Bo appeared in public for the first time in more than a year on Thursday to face trial in eastern China, the final chapter of the country's most politically charged case in more than three decades. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
The prime source of news: the Jinan Courtroom’s Sina Weibo page.Reuters/Carlos Barria

Bo Xilai mounted a fiery self-defense 

It has been 17 months since Bo has been taken into custody, and during this time he and the authorities were believed to be hammering out an agreement over what he would admit to in return for a negotiated sentence.

But rather than quietly accept the court’s accusations that he received $3.6 million in bribes, echoing his earlier confession, Bo said he had confessed “against his will,” under “unjust pressure and coaxing” (paywalls). He called the testimony that his wife, Gu Kailai, made in her earlier murder trial “laughable,” denied owning a villa in Nice and referred to the allegations of the prosecution’s key witness, businessman Tang Xiaolin, as “the ugly performance of a man who has sold his soul.” This won Bo some fans on Sina Weibo.

The Jinan police force rounded up a pair of Yao Mings to guard Bo

An official picture (see above) circulated of Bo standing in the courtroom dock was a stunner. Sandwiched between two enormous police guards, the 6″1 defendant looked tiny. Some speculated that towering physiques informed the choice of the two policemen—or even the trial location itself. (The court is in Jinan, in China’s northwestern province of Shandong, a region famed for the height of its population.) “He already stands out in a crowd, but today these two court cops really are too tall—we finally understand why the trial was arranged in Shandong province,” a blogger called ecxcn wrote on Sina Weibo, as China Real Time reports.

More of the millions of people following the trial on social media didn’t do this

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Artist and political dissident Ai Weiwei took the carefully staged image and inserted his grinning, bearded face onto one of the guard’s bodies, then Instagrammed it.

Bo appeared to use silent communication

What the hand signals Bo was making from the dock actually meant—and whether they were signals at all—became a topic of intense discussion on Sina Weibo and Twitter. Was he signaling his son? Did he just have an itch? No one knows.

No one arrested this strip-teasing petitioner

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A petitioner lifts his shirt to show his injuries as he climbs a pillar to protests his own grievances near the Jinan Intermediate People's Court in Jinan in eastern China's Shandong province on Thursday Aug. 22, 2013. Ousted populist Chinese politician Bo Xilai went on trial Thursday on charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power, marking the ruling Communist Party's attempts to draw a line under one of its most lurid political scandals in decades. Individual protestors have turned up at the court hoping to take advantage of media attention around Bo’s trial to air their own grievances about China’s legal system. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
One of the Jinan sideshows.AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

This man stripping his clothes off was just one of the gaggle of Bo supporters—some serious, some more rabble-rousing—who gathered outside the courthouse, displaying petitions, holding up Mao Zedong posters, chanting about the destruction of “American imperialism” (paywall) and partaking of other somewhat disruptive activities.

The complicated case will run all day tomorrow as well, when the court is expected to level two more charges. Bo, meanwhile, is expected to—well, no one actually knows. There may be more surprises still to come.

Jennifer Chiu contributed Chinese-language translation and reporting. 

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