China

Sensational trial of politician Bo Xilai grips China

  • 23 August 2013
  • From the section China
Bo Xilai (C), former Communist Party chief of the south-western city of Chongqing, leaves the Jinan Intermediate People's Court building
Bo Xilai (centre) left court after a dramatic first day in his trial

People outside China might wonder why the country's citizens have been so captivated by the trial of the charismatic politician Bo Xilai.

After all, in the West we are used to celebrity trials revealing lurid details about the rich and famous, and sometimes politicians too.

China has also had its high-profile court cases; the wife of Mao Zedong was famously put on trial after her husband's death. Her angry courtroom outbursts were shown on Chinese television.

But this trial is different - and therefore worth following - for two reasons.

Firstly, the authorities are posting online details of the trial - transcripts of dialogue, photographs, even audio and video files. This is a level of openness not seen before.

And secondly, the information emerging from the Jinan Intermediate People's Court in Shandong province is extraordinary in its detail; the kind of detail Chinese people are usually denied when it comes to the lives of their leaders.

Surprising revelations

Court cases in China are usually dull, simply because most discussions about the case appear to happen outside the courtroom, away from public view.

Take the case of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. He was detained at the end of 2008, but it was six months before prosecutors revealed what they were going to charge him with.

It then took another six months before the police finally revealed they had finished their investigation into the dissident's activities.

The authorities might have taken their time investigating the case and coming to their conclusions, but they did not feel it necessary to air all that at a public trial.

Mr Liu's hearing lasted just one day. Foreign journalists and diplomats who went to the court to see the proceedings were not allowed in.

In many trials, particularly high-profile ones, the public gets only a vague idea of the details of a case and the charges levelled against a defendant.

The trial of Gu Kailai, the wife of Bo Xilai, is just one example. That hearing also lasted just a day and there were few details about why she had been moved to murder the British businessman Neil Heywood, beyond the fact that they had a dispute.

We seem to be getting as many details about that case at this trial of Bo Xilai as we are about the charges he faces for corruption and abuse of power.

It is these details that Chinese people are revelling in, and which have surprised so many observers.

A police video recording of Gu Kailai has been played at her husband's trial

A presenter for Phoenix TV, based in Hong Kong, even checked the court's website on her mobile while on air to give viewers the latest information.

We are hearing details about the relationship between Bo Xilai's family and the businessman Xu Ming; how he paid for a villa in France and other goodies in order to curry favour with a senior politician.

We have heard about Mr Bo's failed relationship with his wife, who he now says is "insane". Who knew that before?

And we have seen Mr Bo tear holes in the prosecution's evidence.

If this has been scripted, the author has a future in Hollywood.

All this does not mean that China has suddenly decided to allow court cases to take place without political interference. It is inconceivable that Bo Xilai will be found innocent.

Foreign journalists have been barred from the proceedings and we are only getting the postings that the authorities are giving us.

But what postings, what detail. Do not miss this trial, you might not see another one like it again.