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China's biggest trial in decades

Former politician Bo Xilai appears in public for the first time in 17 months for his corruption trial.
Last modified: 21 Aug 2013 17:26
Outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Jinan, dozens at a time were gathering, on the eve of Bo Xilai’s trial.

A good proportion of them were us, the media, staking out our territory, checking live positions for the biggest trial in China for decades.

But drawn to this place as well, were protesters, petitioners, people who wanted to talk about a lack of fairness in China. They found journalists to speak to and police to prove their point.

One group said they had come to the court to register for what is nominally an open session. Instead, they were confronted by a well-built man in T-shirt and jogging trousers. The only thing missing from the outfit was a sign around his neck, reading "plain-clothes policeman".

He accused the group of stealing his wallet, and made a show of phoning uniformed officers. They arrived within minutes with the express purpose of taking everyone to the police station to resolve the matter.

Another man happily told a Hong Kong TV crew that Bo’s trial was all about politics. If it were about corruption, he said, then they should arrest everyone in senior positions in the Communist party.

Bo is accused of corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power. Chinese media say the charges include illegally enriching himself to the tune of about $5m, and preventing his police chief from investigating a murder case.

Not just any murder case. His wife, Gu Kailai, was at the centre of it. She was given a suspended death sentence last year for the murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood – an associate of and supposed fixer for the Bo family.

That scandal, in the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, where Bo ruled as Party Secretary, saw this star of Chinese politics fall blazing to earth.

He was dismissed from his position in Chongqing and from his place in the politburo.

But Bo is not without friends at the top of the party. For them, his real crime was to have been too much of a charismatic attention-seeker. Too open a challenger for those who’d worked quietly, behind the scenes, in charting their way to the top.

Certainly the length of time between Bo’s disappearance from public life in March 2012, and Thursday’s trial, suggests that arranging his punishment has been a very delicate, highly political business.

The new president, Xi Jinping, has launched a highly publicized anti-corruption drive, targeting “tigers” as well as “flies”. Though fallen, Bo is still very much a tiger, and Xi would have had to consider the reaction of his allies to the sentence that will be passed at, or after, this trial.

Competing with that, the need to give the appearance of transparency – a message that even the elites, even a princeling son of a revolutionary leader, are liable to punishment for wrongdoing.

The problem is that it’s a message few appear willing to buy. One protester in Jinan on Wednesday said nobody could expect justice in China if someone like Bo Xilai didn’t have a right to a fair trial.

As for the group accused of stealing the wallet, they stood their ground against the plain-clothes policeman and his uniformed friends.

The officers eventually drifted off, perhaps unwilling to be filmed dragging people away when such attention is focused on justice in China.

Inside the courtroom though, few expect any protest or challenge from the accused. Bo Xilai has already seen his political career vanish. Now he waits to hear how many years of personal liberty he will also have to give up.