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China fascinated by Bo Xilai trial

The trial of disgraced politician Bo Xilai being played out in a very public manner that could benefit both sides.
Last modified: 25 Aug 2013 14:36

The final summing up in the trial of the former Chinese Communist Party politburo member, Bo Xilai, is expected to begin on Monday morning, at the court in the eastern city of Jinan.

Bo stands accused of taking bribes and embezzling funds in excess of four million dollars, and abusing his power in trying to cover up his wife's murder of a British businessman.

After just two and a half hours of proceedings on Sunday, a convoy of vehicles, including two blacked out vans, one for Bo, the other for his long time friend and ally Wang Lijun, swept out of the court gates.

Earlier, the two men had faced off again as adversaries, giving their starkly differing accounts of the circumstances that triggered this, the most serious political scandal to hit China's ruling elite for decades.

Wang Lijun was the police chief in the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, where Bo ruled as local head Communist Party.

It was his decision in February 2012 to flee Chongqing for the US consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu, that first alerted authorities, and the wider world, to an unfolding tale of intrigue, in-fighting and murder, involving one of China's most recognised political families.

Wang Lijun says he went to Bo Xilai on the evening of January 28, 2012, to tell him that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had admitted that she had killed the British businessman Neil Heywood.

He told the court that the following day, Bo punched him in the side of the head, causing fluid to leak from his ear and blood from his mouth. That was a prelude to his dismissal. Fearing for his safety, he sought sanctuary with US diplomats.

Juicy details emerge

In court on Sunday, Bo described his former friend as a man of vile character, a liar, already convicted over his attempted defection.

He admitted striking Wang, in anger, in the belief that he was trying to frame his wife.

But he challenged Wang's portrayal of that event: "He said it was not a slap but a punch. But I've never learned how to box and have no great strength to strike out."

Such juicy detail, coming out as the case has progressed, has fascinated many in a country used to perfunctory trials, where much information is withheld.

Trials like that of Gu Kailai, last year given a suspended death sentence for the murder of Heywood, after just a few hours in court.

About 230,000 people joined the court's social media Sina-Weibo account on the first day alone, and Bo's extraordinary performance, cross-examining witnesses and pouring scorn on the prosecution's case, has provided rare political drama.

Even government officials, mingling with reporters outside court, confessed their surprise.

Still, the promised television feed of the proceedings for reporters did not materialise. Releasing excerpts on social media some time after the exchanges they detail allows plenty of time for editing.

And according to the website FreeWeibo.com, dozens of pro Bo Xilai microblogs, praising his performance, have been deleted.

While the government trumpets its anti-corruption crackdown, of which Bo’s trial is portrayed as a part, recent days have seen police action against online "rumour-mongers" targeting allegedly corrupt officials.

A TV presenter who used her social media account to detail lavish gifts, including luxury cars, given to her by her lover, a mid-ranking official, has had her account removed.

Predetermined verdict

It's notable that the during the evidence on the bribery and embezzlement charges against Bo Xilai, the transcripts showed him taking on witnesses in a powerful, direct way: forcing one to agree that Bo had not known of his wife's corrupt dealings; telling another he'd have been stupid to act as described.

But his performance, as relayed by the court, has been less impressive in responding to the abuse of power charge - particularly in explaining why he removed his old friend from his job in charge of the police.

So far the key direct exchange between Bo and Wang Lijun was as follows:

Bo Xilai: Do you believe I dismissed you from your post to stop the murder investigation?

Wang Lijun: Yes.

The prosecution told the court on Sunday that Wang Lijun's evidence should be believed, and that it proved Bo Xilai abused his power in trying to protect his murdering wife.

Few would expect the court to believe anything else. It's likely that the guilty verdict was predetermined some time ago.

What's been so extraordinary about this case – the ability of Bo so publicly to attack his accusers – might, in the long run, serve both sides.

It gives Bo Xilai, the charismatic, popular princeling of the Communist Party one last hurrah, a sop to his supporters.

And it allows the party to say: We gave him his chance, he's had his say, but we have still proven his guilt.