Bo trial may not win over China public: analysts

JINAN, China - Chinese authorities tried to present Bo Xilai's corruption trial as an unprecedented open display of fairness, but with limits on publication and references to other leaders conspicuously absent, they may yet fail in the court of public opinion.

Bo, once head of the southwestern megacity of Chongqing and one of China's 25 most powerful politicians, had divided the Communist leadership with his flamboyant left-wing populism, and a sensational murder scandal was the catalyst for his downfall.

But the one-party state broke from its typically swift, simple and unpublicised trials - where defendants routinely confess their guilt - to let Bo mount a feisty defence and even directly question witnesses, who rarely appear in Chinese courts.

The court in the eastern city of Jinan even published regular but carefully managed transcripts from the five-day event on Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

"The judicial decision that will take Bo out for probably a very long time has to have maximum legitimacy, so that it really washes off the party the taint of having had a top leader engaging brazenly in this kind of corruption and abuse," said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior Human Rights Watch researcher based in Hong Kong.

"Having a good trial like this, something that really looks like a real trial, will help confer legitimacy to the outcome and that's in the interest of the party."

The scandal over the killing of British businessman Neil Heywood emerged in the run-up to a 10-yearly handover of power within the ruling party, and the proceedings were a way of "closing a chapter on this very messy succession and power struggle", Bequelin added.

But the court's online updates were partial and publication delays lengthened as proceedings went on. Analysts said the entire trial risked looking like a cover for political infighting.

"Challenges to the leadership, challenges to the party line typically are handled in terms of corruption cases," said Joseph Cheng, a China politics expert at City University of Hong Kong.

"It reinforces a rather cynical impression on the part of the ordinary people: if officials are accused of corruption it means that they have gotten into political trouble."

The magnitude of corruption often associated with top officials such as Bo is much greater than the 27 million ($4.4 million) at issue in the trial.

Adding to the sense of political theatre, the issues most sensitive to the party - such as large-scale graft or disputes among Bo's fellow leaders - did not arise in court, according to the transcripts as published.

It was not known whether they were censored or if authorities negotiated with Bo beforehand not to mention them.

But the sole allusion to a senior leader, a vague reference that Bo in one instance acted on orders from above, disappeared from a secrion of the transcript that was deleted and reposted.

State media played down and even dismissed Bo's arguments, with the official news agency Xinhua mentioning his defence only in passing, and Chinese-language newspapers largely confining themselves to reprinting its reports.

"I think the central political and judicial authorities are keen to show a high degree of openness and transparency regarding the trial, while at the same time tightly controlling the message," said Nicholas Howson, an expert on Chinese law at the University of Michigan in the US.

The trial arrangements certainly gave Bo a platform of sorts, but Cheng said authorities may have calculated he would not secure too large a groundswell of support.

In court he apparently lived up to his reputation as bold and charismatic - dismissing his wife Gu Kailai who provided testimony as "insane", and the account of his righthand man and Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun as "full of lies and fraud".

By the end of the trial, the court's Weibo account had almost 600,000 followers. But the comments on it showed views were divided - and illustrated the degree of control being imposed.

"I can only say this is a trial that has already had its result decided," said one comment soon after the hearings ended Monday. "No matter how hard Bo fights, the sentence is at least life in jail. This trial is just a procedure that has to be done."

But remarks posted under a transcript published Sunday - since when authorities had had time to censor them - overwhelmingly backed the process.

"The party centre showed their firm determination to resolutely punish corruption," read one. "I believe the court will hear this case in a fair and just way."