HONG KONG — Welcome to the first Communist show trial of the social-media era.
Thursday morning, after more than a year of silent detention and closed-door negotiations, former Communist Party boss Bo Xilai stepped into a courtroom in China’s northeastern city of Jinan to face charges of bribery, graft, and abuse of power.
But unlike the trial of the Gang of Four in 1976—China’s last big intra-party political scandal, when the leaders of the Cultural Revolution were charged with treason—Bo’s proceedings weren’t televised. They were live-tweeted.
Throughout the first day of an expected two-day hearing, the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court of Shandong Province published microblog posts on Sina Weibo of what it said was happening inside. The hundreds of journalists who made the trek to Jinan were directed to a room with a TV showing the court’s Weibo feed.
It was a sign that the Communist Party’s attempt to control the conversation about Bo Xilai—who remains popular among many in China—has become savvier in an age of social media.
The trial itself, though heavily orchestrated, brought a few surprises.
First was the appearance of Bo in the first image of him released since his arrest. In the photo, Bo looks almost diminutive next to his guards. But as many commentators pointed out, he actually stands around 6’1, which would make his handlers extraordinarily — and certainly not accidentally — huge.
Others focused on interpreting the somewhat unusual position of the fingers on Bo’s left hand, wondering if they meant to communicate something—perhaps to tell his son Bo Guagua that he was OK.
More from GlobalPost: How Beijing in artfully stage-managing the Bo Xilai case
Another surprise was that Bo Guagua himself was mentioned in the court’s accusations—the first time Bo’s son has been implicated in an alleged crime. The court said that Bo Xilai received $3.5 million in bribes from businessmen through Bo Guagua and through his wife, Gu Kailai.
Prior to the trial, many had speculated that Bo would strike a deal that would protect his son, who is living in the US and enrolled to attend Columbia University Law School this fall. In a letter to the New York Times published earlier this week, Bo Guagua said he hoped his father would receive a fair trial, and said that “if my well-being has been bartered for my father’s acquiescence or my mother’s further cooperation, then the verdict will clearly carry no moral weight.”
But that barter seems not to have happened, and the bribery charge does not bode well for Bo Guagua to return to China anytime soon.
Finally, many were struck to see Bo take a strident, defiant tone in the transcripts released by the court. Bo repeatedly disputed the charges, saying he had signed a confession under “unjust pressure and coaxing” from Party investigators. He called the prosecution’s star witness, a businessman who says he gave Bo bribes, a “crazy dog” whose testimony was the “ugly performance of a person selling his soul.” And he dismissed his wife’s admissions as “comical” and “ridiculous.”
Given that many had expected that Bo Xilai would not be allowed to defend himself openly, his colorful defiance came as something of a surprise. Is this a free trial, after all?
Not necessarily. As Beijing commentator Eric Fish pointed out, the courtroom theatrics may all be a way for the trial to look more legitimate.