- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia Editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington DC. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
Day one of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai’s trial on charges of bribery, corruption, and abusing his power has come to an end. Since his dramatic removal from office in March 2012, it has been widely believed that Bo would one day face a trial — and be convicted of at least one of the charges against him. But Thursday was a surprising day in Jinan, the provincial capital in eastern China that hosted the court proceedings. For those who didn’t spend last night glued to their devices, here’s what you missed:
The Chinese government live-Weiboed the trial, sending out pictures, quotes, and reports over the Jinan court’s Sina microblog feed. While it’s difficult to say whether Beijing censored the material — foreign journalists were not allowed inside to cover the trial, so it’s unclear how closely the official remarks hewed to what actually went down in the courtroom — it is certainly China’s first live-microblogged show trial. I’d guess Beijing learned a lesson from the rumors and conspiracy theories that flew around the capital after Bo’s sacking, and now wants to more actively control the narrative.
That strategy is risky because Bo has always been a very media-savvy politician; in the staid world of Chinese politics, Bo was known as an "official with personality" — someone able to personably and charismatically communicate with constituents, reporters, visiting dignitaries, and other officials. The contrast was especially distinct under the robotic apparatchik Hu Jintao, China’s president while Bo’s scandal was unfolding in early 2012 (Hu stepped down at the end of his term in November 2012). Bo is probably the only high-ranking Chinese official to have studied international journalism — he received a master’s degree on that subject from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China’s most prominent think tank.
Bo was surprisingly outspoken during the trial, drawing sympathy on Weibo. According to the Weibo account of the trial, Bo contested the bribery charges against him, and called a video testimony by a witness "an ugly performance by a person who sold his soul." According to Tea Leaf Nation, a website focusing on Chinese media, Bo’s performance elicited sympathetic remarks from Chinese social media users, including this one from @HeJiangBing: "I’ve changed my view of him! He is much more gentlemanly than those with power and he really does know the law."
That said, Bo’s responses were probably scripted. Bo likely negotiated with his former colleagues in the Politburo, a top Chinese decision-making body, over how much leeway he has to criticize the government during the trial. "He knows exactly what to say and what not to say," lawyer Zhang Sizhi, who defended Mao Zedong’s widow Jiang Qing in 1980 at the Gang of Four trial, told Reuters. "It seems some sort of understanding was reached ahead of time." Reuters also quoted Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, who said Bo "is clearly going along with this trial," adding, "The outcome has been already decided. There’s probably an agreement already between Bo and the party as to what the outcome will be." A spirited defense from Bo gives Beijing slightly more credibility to claim — should it decide to — that the trial was fair and impartial.
While he doesn’t have a political future, Bo may yet have a voice after the trial. It’s not uncommon for high-ranking Chinese officials to tell their side of the story years, or decades, after being deposed, disgraced, or arrested. Chen Xitong, the former party secretary of Beijing, and one of only three Politburo members to be put on trial in the last three decades, published a book in 2012 claiming his trial was "an absurd miscarriage of justice." And audiotapes of conversations with Zhao Ziyang, purged from his position as premier after the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and placed under house arrest, were smuggled out and turned into an influential memoir.
That day may even come during the trial. As Steve Tsang, an expert on Chinese politics at Britain’s Nottingham University, told the Wall Street Journal: "Bo Xilai being Bo Xilai, it’s not impossible that he’ll pull a stunt at the last minute, whatever deal he’s made with the top leadership."