How the Media Got the Bo Xilai Trial Wrong

How the Media Got the Bo Xilai Trial Wrong

On July 25, after months of silence about Bo Xilai, the disgraced Chinese politician who hadn’t been seen in public since his sacking in March 2012, China’s official Xinhua news agency ran a two-sentence story stating that Bo had been indicted for bribery, corruption, and abuse of power, inciting speculation that a carefully managed and day-long show trial would begin within weeks. "Trial of Bo Xilai likely to be swift and predictable, say experts," a Guardian headline advised.

The timing, at least, turned out to be true: Bo Xilai’s trial began on Aug. 22. But as for many other details about the trial, we in the foreign press were way off. Bo’s five-day trial featured explosive allegations, remarkable transparency — the court in the provincial capital of Jinan, where the trial was held, released much of the testimony via their microblog — and a command performance by Bo himself.

Chinese politics are notoriously opaque — elite politics, especially when it involves the biggest public scandal the Communist Party has faced in decades, even more so. All of which made predicting how China’s trial of the century will play out very difficult.

Consider some of the stories that appeared in the weeks leading up to the trial. The Guardian expected the trial to last "a few hours," not several days. A July 31 Reuters story, meanwhile, claimed Bo had agreed to plead guilty to at least some of the charges, which he ultimately didn’t (the story did hedge by adding, "It remains to be seen if his decision to plead guilty will hold until the trial").

Writing in Bloomberg, China scholar Minxin Pei predicted the trial would be "an anticlimax. Even if the trial were public, we would witness no courtroom drama," he noted. "Bo … will almost certainly be presented as a broken and penitent man." Instead, a defiant Bo gave an impressive performance. He called his wife "insane" and said that the defection of police chief Wang Lijun, which dragged the scandal into the public light in February 2012, came about after Bo learned that Wang was having an affair with his wife. He demolished the testimony of imprisoned businessman Xu Ming, whom Bo is accused of bribing — at one point saying the conversations he allegedly had with Xu were so outrageous that they "would not even appear in the cheapest television dramas." Bo presented himself as canny and sympathetic; there was nothing broken about the master politician on display in the courtroom these last five days in Jinan.

Personally, I was confident that Bo Xilai would surface with gray hair. Chinese politicians have a well-known penchant for dying their hair, and I figured that in the few images of the trial broadcast on Chinese television, Bo would appear, head bowed, hair gray, and mumble a few words of contrition before the camera panned away. I discussed the story with Foreign Policy contributor Paul French, who wrote, "I’m looking forward to the gray hair — they always deny them the hair dye in prison and so the most shocking thing is the gray hair — publicly parading a senior Chinese politician with gray hair is tantamount to [making] him walk naked through town!!"

But that was not how events played out. When a picture of Bo with a lustrous head of black hair, emerged online, French wrote back: "interesting to see hair looking dark still?"

The missteps in the coverage of Bo’s trial haven’t all been recent, or confined to the foreign press. In January, China’s state-run Ta Kung Pao newspaper reported that Bo’s trial would start later that month in the southern Chinese city of Guiyang, citing "well-informed Beijing sources."  Dozens of reporters flew to Guiyang, only to learn that no trial had been planned. "Flummoxed, local court officials held a hasty and unusual press conference to deny a trial was in the offing and pleaded for the media to leave them alone," Reuters correspondent John Ruwitch wrote from Guiyang. (Coverage of the international aspects of the case, like the Bo family’s villa in Cannes, and the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, have proved more accurate and comprehensive.) 

Beijing managed to keep much of the Bo saga — and the elite machinations that precipitated it — from the foreign press. As humbling as it may be to admit, we know very little about what goes on at the highest levels of Chinese politics. The most honest headline I’ve seen recently — and it must have driven its editor crazy — came from Voice of America in early August: "China’s Biggest Corruption Trial in Decades Remains a Mystery."