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Is China scared of Bo Xilai?
China's biggest corruption trial in decades got off to a surprisingly wild start — but will it spell trouble for the ruling party?
 
Disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai (center) at his trial on charges of bribery, corruption, and abuse of power.
Disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai (center) at his trial on charges of bribery, corruption, and abuse of power. Feng Li/Getty Images

The highly anticipated trial of Bo Xilai, the disgraced former member of China's elite Politburo, kicked off Thursday with an unexpected twist: An incredibly feisty and furious defendant.

Bo is accused of accepting $3.5 million in bribes while a member of China's ruling class, and of using his power to obstruct a murder investigation centered on his wife. His downfall last year, which came as China prepared for a delicate power transfer, threatened to upend that entire process.

Recent trials in China have arguably been mostly for show, with defendants resigned to long-since predetermined outcomes. Yet in this trial, the biggest in decades, and the first to be made so open to the public, the action Thursday did not follow that script.

With millions of Chinese citizens following live updates on a state-run microblog and on China's version of Twitter, Bo furiously denied the charges against him, and insisted he had been coerced into making an earlier confession.

From the New York Times:

According to lengthy transcripts the court released in an extraordinary show of transparency, Mr. Bo, 64, called his wife's assertions that she had noticed anonymous deposits in their bank account "laughable." He accused a businessman who had recorded video testimony against him of having "sold his soul." And he discounted his earlier confession to taking bribes, saying he had made the statements to Communist Party investigators against his will, out of "opportunism and weakness" and under "mental strain." [New York Times]

Bo, it appears, is not going down without a fight.

That could be problematic for Chinese officials, who are used to keeping a tight lid on dissidence and effectively controlling political discourse in that nation. Though Bo has been stripped of his power, and a guilty verdict seems all but certain in a trial that is expected to last just two days, he remains popular with critics of the ruling government; hundreds of police surrounded the court Thursday to keep demonstrators at bay.

The trial's uncharacteristic openness has only added to the spectacle — and heightened the risk for Chinese officials.

Authorities set up a live blog of the proceedings — journalists were barred from the courtroom — and state-run media announced running developments throughout the first day's proceedings. For Chinese citizens watching it all unfold at home, the rare window into courtroom disobedience could swing public opinion against the government in the case.

From the Wall Street Journal's Jeremy Page:

All courts are tightly controlled by the party in China, and political insiders say its new leadership, under Xi Jinping, is hoping to stage-manage the trial to wrap up a scandal that revealed deep divisions within the party's top echelons, and heightened public anger and scrutiny over official corruption and abuse of power.

The risk for China's leaders, however, is that by sharing so many details of the trial with the general public, they will draw further attention to the wealth and privileges of the party elite, or revive political support for Mr. Bo and open new rifts within the Chinese leadership. [Wall Street Journal]

But not everything was transparent. Indeed, in a sign that authorities were eager to keep the trial's more unflattering details under wraps, some of the testimony was reportedly left out of official transcripts, and comments on the microblog critical of the trial were later scrubbed, according to the Times. And China is still taking extraordinary measures to ensure its crafted message drowns out all dissent.

In one example, images of Bo in court show him dwarfed by two officers. But as many have pointed out, Bo is over six feet tall, raising the question of whether his guards were hand-picked to make him appear smaller, more powerless.

Rather than truly throwing the case open for public scrutiny, the purported openness via new media channels merely shows that the government "has become savvier in an age of social media," says Global Posts' Benjamin Carlson.

 
Jon Terbush is an associate editor at TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.

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