JINAN, China — As the trial of ousted Communist Party leader Bo Xilai began Thursday morning, few if any observers were focused on the outcome. A guilty verdict, many believe, has long been prearranged.
Instead, the suspense is in the process — how party leaders will choose to prosecute one of their own and whether authorities can pull off the semblance of a fair trial.
Authorities have taken great pains to give the impression that the trial will be conducted in a transparent, just manner. At the same time, there are clear signs of strict management by party officials fearful of losing control over the process. Bo’s relatives are bracing for a useless legal defense and guilty verdict, said a close associate of theirs who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.
“They don’t have any illusions,” the friend said. “They know the decision will come down from the top of the party.”
Instead, the relatives spent recent days trying to decide who among them should attend the trial. Bo has relayed to them that he sincerely wants someone from his family present, said the family friend. According to state media on Thursday, five family members were attending the trial.
Bo was ousted from China’s
Politburo and as party chief in Chongqing, a major city in southern China, after that city’s vice mayor implicated Bo’s wife in the death of a British businessman.
A sense of anxiety, verging on paranoia, was palpable Wednesday throughout the city of Jinan, where the trial is being held.
By morning, authorities had commandeered the entire second floor of a hotel nearby and transformed it into a Department of Motor Vehicles-like processing center to record the cellphone numbers, passport details and accreditations of hundreds of foreign journalists arriving to cover the trial.
Skittish personnel who were registering journalists in the morning declined to answer even basic questions, such as what branch of government they worked for. Minutes later, they rushed to greet a delegation from the powerful State Council office in Beijing, which wanted to inspect the premises.
On the sixth floor of the hotel, staffers standing outside a large hall vehemently denied knowledge of a post-trial news conference being prepared for the next day. But through double doors that were quickly shut by the staff, one could see large words blown up in the background of a stage announcing an event staged by the Intermediate People’s Court.
“This is not a legal case anymore, but a political case,” said Bo Zhiyue, a political analyst at the National University of Singapore. “People are watching how the government uses the law when it comes to a high-ranking official like Bo.”
Authorities have portrayed Bo in state-run media as a common criminal who will not receive special treatment. But the extra police cars and uniformed and plainclothes police throughout this city, 280 miles south of Beijing, suggested otherwise.
Government notices declared the trial would be “public,” and a court spokesman this week said seats in court were briefly available. State media reported Thursday that 19 journalists were inside the courtroom during the trial. But no journalist outside the state-run media appears to have obtained permission to sit in.
In another move toward openness, the court created a microblog account on Sina Weibo — the Chinese equivalent of Twitter — ahead of the trial. Comments on that page have been heavily censored. Only those uncritical of the government and in favor of Bo’s conviction have been allowed.
Outside the courthouse Wednesday, police were simultaneously friendly and threatening to journalists who were staking out prime locations across the road. They pointed out scaffolding being erected by workers and said it was a government project to provide shade to journalists who would spend Thursday stuck outside.
Then police demanded that everyone take out their press cards as two uniformed men held up video cameras and passed through the crowd, filming journalists’ faces.
The trial has focused attention on China’s often-criticized legal system, in which high-profile cases are frequently decided by party leaders, forced confessions are common and courts maintain an astonishing 99 percent conviction rate.
Various relatives of Bo tried to hire a series of lawyers to represent him but were denied permission to do so. The two lawyers ultimately appointed by the court to represent Bo have strong ties to the central government. Xi Jinping, the party’s top leader and China’s president, visited their law firm in 2010, and the company boasts on its Web site of working with more than 100 state groups.
Bo’s family has been unable to meet with him for the past year, according to the family friend. During that time, Bo wrote multiple letters to his relatives, but they were not delivered; government investigators displayed them in recent months in front of the family. In the letters, the friend said, Bo asked his family to send him clothes as well as books about Marxism, Maoism, Deng Xiaoping and the “transformation of China.”
Bo himself remains one of the biggest question marks in Thursday’s proceedings — and the factor that has worried leaders most in negotiations leading up to the trial, say many within the party.
Although Bo’s wife and his top lieutenant, Wang Lijun, cooperated with authorities during their own trials last year, Bo has a much more forceful personality and a track record of wielding power ruthlessly.
Before his fall, Bo cultivated high-level party and military allies in a campaign for a seat in China’s highest circle of power — the Communist Party’s Standing Committee. He also retains powerful support at the grass-roots level because of his popular leftist campaigns, as well as his network as one of the “princeling” children of China’s revolutionary founders.
“It must all be determined beforehand or else they would not dare hold the trial,” said one former party journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But no one knows until the trial what Bo himself will ultimately choose to say.”