Open nature of Bo's trial causes a stir in China

Journalists filming a screen displaying the microblog page of the court where disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai is standing trial, in Jinan, Shandong province, on Thursday. Analysts are divided over whether the trial will be used as a template for similarly ranked leaders, or whether it is a one-off thing.

CHINA - The updates came fast and furious: the almost real-time transcripts of courtroom exchanges, as well as photos of the accused and people attending the trial.

In a rare move, a Chinese court provided live updates via its Twitter-like Weibo account of the trial of former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, which began Thursday.

This new "openness" has prompted some to wonder whether China would do the same for similar cases involving former top officials in the future.

Analysts are divided. Wuhan University law professor Qin Qianhong believes that Bo's trial might be used as a template for similarly ranked leaders.

Others believe that this trial may be a one-off, given the special circumstances surrounding Bo, one of China's most flamboyant and controversial politicians.

Renmin University political analyst Zhang Ming told The Straits Times: "Being open would improve the justice system, but I'm not hopeful as China is still far from being a law-based society."

In Bo's case, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chose to be unusually open for several unique reasons, analysts said.

First, the party wanted to make a public show that justice was being upheld. Bo faces charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power.

Second, Chinese leaders are hoping that the trial would help to heal ruptures within the party as a result of Bo's ejection from power, said Professor Zhang.

"Bo still has many admirers in China and he remains a divisive figure in the party, where many are still his supporters," he added.

"So there's a need to be seen as above board and fair."

Until his sacking as Chongqing party boss in March last year and subsequent ejection from the Politburo, Bo had been vying for a seat in the party's apex Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).

The 64-year-old was banking on his "Chongqing Model" in the western municipality, featuring a Maoist-revival campaign and a crackdown on the mafia.

But his style of governance worried those in the party bent on the capitalist-leaning economic path, and his open campaigning for a PSC seat also made him enemies.

However, some believe that the CCP's decision to hold an "open" trial might have backfired, judging from his court antics.

Instead of confessing to his crimes, the eloquent politician disputed the bribery charge by refuting the testimonies of prosecution witnesses. These included his wife, who is serving a suspended death sentence for murder, and Dalian Shide group boss Xu Ming.

Prof Zhang disagrees that Bo has surprised the authorities.

"It would have been abnormal to the public if an accused, especially a former top official like Bo, does not put up some defence against the charges," he said.

Similarly, Prof Qin said Bo's court performance was staged - part of a pact with the authorities so that they will leave his son Guagua alone. He believes the prosecution implicated his son so as to debunk suspicions of a staged trial.

Prosecutors said Bo used his wife and son to take bribes totalling 21.8 million yuan (S$4.5 million) from Mr Xu and Dalian International Development Company general manager Tang Xiaolin.

But Prof Qin thinks it is unlikely the CCP would go after the younger Bo, who is studying in the United States and has so far been left out of the case.

"They may deem it more useful to keep the son as a bargaining chip to rein in the Bo family and his supporters," he added.

Despite going to great lengths, the party may not have convinced many that Bo's trial was not politically motivated, said analysts.

"Without a strong political backing, it is impossible to haul a high-ranking official like Bo to court," said Prof Qin.

Next page: More reactions

WHAT THEY SAY:

SURGE OF 'PITY'

"I feel a sudden surge of pity for him (Bo Xilai), such a high-ranking official standing trial in front of judges who would have shivered at the sight of him in the past. But these judges are now ordering him around and shouting at him. How can the fragile self-esteem bear it?"

- Novelist and playwright Quan Yongxian, in a sarcastic post on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo

PUSH FOR PRESS FREEDOM

"If there is a court case that receives close attention, and both the media and public want a chance to sit in during the trial, then the courts should choose the biggest courtroom. If it is still unable to meet the demand, then it should use balloting to determine who can sit in. There should be freedom of the press, and the media should not be compelled to speak in one voice or have their reports act as the mouthpiece of certain officials. This is the bottom line of an open justice system."

- Peking University law academic He Weifang, in a Weibo post

BARGAINING CHIP

"They may deem it more useful to keep Bo's son as a bargaining chip to rein in the Bo family and his supporters from stirring up more trouble in the future."

- Wuhan University legal professor Qin Qianhong, who believes Bo's son Guagua will not face trouble even though he was named in the case

OPEN TRIAL

"This trial is more open than the trial of the Gang of Four. I find Bo Xilai to be a quick-thinking and eloquent person."

- Sichuan University's law professor Chen Jierong, in a Weibo post

kianbeng@sph.com.sg


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