Even in adversity, he emerged a hero. The trial of Bo Xilai — the former Chongqing party chief who fell from grace suddenly last year — ended after five days instead of the scheduled two, with the accused going down fighting. Not only were Bo’s fans across the country delighted with his unexpectedly spirited performance in court, but he also won new admirers.
When an “open trial’’ was announced for Bo, it was seen as a ploy to prove that the Party leader — the only one who had become a cult figure in recent times — was being punished after a fair trial. Like all high-profile accused, Bo was expected to plead guilty to the charges (taking bribes, embezzlement and abuse of power), express remorse, and get a lighter sentence. But he defied expectations from the word go.
Expressing the hope that the judge would handle the case “properly according to law’’, he denied his earlier “confession’’ in front of the Party, saying it had been made against his will. He described the testimony of a businessman against him as an “ugly performance of a person selling his soul’’.
After his wife’s recorded testimony was played, he dismissed her allegations against him as having been made under pressure, in order to avoid a death sentence. (She was sentenced to death but with a two-year reprieve last year for the murder of a Briton.) Calling her insane, he revealed that they had hardly communicated with each other in the last few years, and that she had left with her son to live abroad after discovering that Bo was having an affair. He denied all knowledge of a luxury villa in France, allegedly gifted to his wife by a businessman, and of the latter paying for his son’s visits abroad. It would have been “vulgar’’ for his wife to have mentioned to him things like payment for tickets, he said loftily. His disclaimers turned out to be true as he cross-examined the businessman.
Brought face to face with the man responsible for his fall — his close aide and the former Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun — Bo dismissed his testimony as “bull****’’, and alleged that Wang had fled to the American consulate in Chengdu in February 2012 because Bo had found out that he was in love with his wife. Arrested after this flight, Wang had spilt the beans about Bo’s wife having had a Briton murdered, and about Bo’s own corruption.
Bo was at times witty and sarcastic (“I am not a boxer, I do not have that kind of power’’, said in response to Wang’s testimony that Bo had punched him), at times playing the simple Communist (“My winter trousers were bought by my mother in the 60s’’), while also taking responsibility and expressing shame for conduct that had caused damage to the Party. He kept revealing a lot about himself (“When people speak with me I first request they switch off their phones. I am still a rather cautious person’’), and gave a masterly performance. CCTV coverage of parts of the trial showed a thinner Bo, but one who had lost none of his élan.
The trial was open to Chinese reporters and some citizens, but coverage was confined to transcripts of the proceedings put up on the micro-blogging site, Weibo. Even these were censored; a post would sometimes be deleted, then replaced by a revised version. The most important of the deletions had to do with Bo’s statement that he had obtained a fake medical certificate for Wang Lijun (after he had fled to the American consulate) on “orders from above’’. The last phrase was deleted from the revised transcript.
What sentence will Bo get? The Party will have to deal with the 64 year-old’s continuing popularity despite his fall, specially among Chongqing’s poor, those wronged by authority, and those who want the country to return to its Red roots. Some supporters outside the courtroom carried Mao’s portraits; 26 were arrested.