HEFEI, China, Aug 9 - At Gu Kailai’s trial on Thursday, it was hard to tell whether the police outnumbered the journalists, or the other way around.
Either way, everyone was drenched.
China’s “trial of the century” opened Thursday, the same day that typhoon Haikui, which hit Shanghai and coastal Zhejiang province late Wednesday, began to wallop Anhui province with torrential downpours and gale force winds.
Inside the sealed-off court building, 140 observers, including Communist Party politicians, were gathered to hear the evidence in the murder case against Gu, wife of deposed provincial party chieftan Bo Xilai. Outside, scores of reporters - Chinese and foreign journalists, and media representatives from Hong Kong and Taiwan - were enduring the pounding rain, under the watchful eye of a roughly equal number of police, some in uniforms and many more in plainclothes pretending to be ordinary passersby.
The police ringed the court building, which takes up an entire block of a newly developed part of Hefei, the Anhui capital, near a modern conference center and a shopping mall. They used orange cones to block vehicles from some nearby streets, and they quickly hustled away the only two “ordinary people” who tried vainly to stage a protest.
The miserable journalists, meanwhile, huddled under umbrellas against the pelting rain, trading mostly rumors and gossip about what might be happening inside the courtroom. Might there be a press conference at the lunchtime break? Would the trial last one day or two? Maybe the British diplomats monitoring the session inside would emerge to speak.
The only respite from the elements was a Starbucks in the nearby shopping mall, which probably multiplied its normal business a thousand-fold, as reporters came in to dry off, warm up, and make sure rain-soaked equipment was still functioning.
By early afternoon, with only a brief letup in the rain and no word from inside the courtroom despite vague promises of a halftime briefing, tempers began to flare. A group of Hong Kong reporters noticed someone in the crowd in plainclothes - an intelligence officer, no doubt - taking photographs not of the courthouse, but of the journalists. An angry, finger-pointing shouting match ensued, with the suspected security officer protesting that he was just an “ordinary Chinese citizen” taking pictures, until he was rescued by his police colleagues.
(Earlier on Wednesday, CNN reporter Steven Jiang was stopped roughly by police from asking people on the street in Hefei what they thought of the Gu Kailai trial, and he suffered a bruised arm.)
The trial ended quickly, and with no official word to reporters who had to scramble at the last minute through the downpour to a hotel ballroom, where a court official handed out the authorized version of what had transpired inside.
And it was only when the first CCTV footage appeared that the gathered media crowd got a glimpse of the woman they had all flown here to see - Gu, in a black jacket and white shirt, being led into the courtroom, with a uniformed policewoman on either side. And behind her was her household aide and co-defendant in the murder case, Zhang Xiaojun.
After six months of Internet-fuelled rumors, and a long day of waiting, reporters in the ballroom were left trying to dissect the vagaries of the Chinese legal system. Trials in China are quick - usually the prosecutor outlining his case before a three-judge panel. In sensitive cases, defense lawyers are appointed by the courts, and are generally not allowed to plead “not guilty” for their clients. The assumption is that the defendant is guilty unless proven innocent.
Prosecutors win around 99 percent of their cases, by the estimates of some foreign legal experts.