BEIJING – Former Politburo member Bo Xilai went on trial Thursday for bribery and embezzlement with China’s judiciary as much in the spotlight as the man at the center of the country’s most politically charged case in 30 years.
The proceedings began after 8:30 a.m., Xinhua News Agency reported. Bo’s supporters gathered under a heavy security to wave banners and portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong, while police herded journalists into a cordoned-off area across from the court building.
“Bo Xilai goes along with the real socialist road,” said a 42-year-old protester who identified himself as Shao. “He did everything for the common people, not for the very few rich people.”
Bo’s case may follow a pattern of past political defendants who were turned over to the courts after they had been purged by party leaders. With a guilty verdict not in doubt, Bo awaits news of the severity of his punishment, said Randy Peerenboom, a law professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.
“There’s definitely been some kind of agreement between all the parties concerned about what is supposed to happen,” Peerenboom said. “Guilt is a foregone conclusion and the sentence is most likely already agreed. The only real question is whether Bo Xilai is prepared to go along with the script.”
Bo faces bribery and corruption charges dating back to his time as mayor of Dalian in the 1990s, while an abuse of power charge is linked to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in Chongqing in 2011 when he was party secretary there. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted and given a suspended death sentence last year over Heywood’s death.
The Weibo microblog feed of the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court said the galleries were packed and orderly. It said five of Bo’s relatives were attending the trial.
In the case of Gu and Bo’s former police chief in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, charges were followed by a one- or two-day trial in which they delivered statements expressing remorse for their crimes — in Wang’s case, before a verdict was pronounced. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges that included bribe taking and bending the law for selfish ends.
Like former Shanghai Communist Party chief Chen Liangyu, who was convicted of bribery and abuse of power and sentenced to 18 years behind bars in 2008, Bo faces a carefully scripted hearing in which the outcome is preordained, said Minxin Pei, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.
“I read a story in the Chinese press about Chen Liangyu’s trial — they actually had to rehearse,” Pei said. “They got down to such minute details as bathroom breaks for the defendant.”
Bo was considered a candidate for the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee before Wang’s flight to the U.S. Consulate in the city of Chengdu with evidence about Heywood’s murder triggered the events that led to his ouster. The country hasn’t seen such a politically fraught trial since Chairman Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, was prosecuted in 1980 for her role in the Cultural Revolution.
In high-level cases in China, defendants often aren’t allowed to choose their lawyers and prosecution witnesses may not testify, meaning there is no chance for them to be cross-examined. China’s top court officials are appointed by the National People’s Congress, the national legislature that answers to the party. Judges are given leeway to decide cases at lower levels, while other cases are dictated by the party, according to Peerenboom.
“When you have 11 to 12 million cases a year, if the courts weren’t independent at all, people would stop going to them,” Peerenboom said. “Then there’s a range of cases that are clearly part of a political process.”
The length of time between Bo’s ouster as Chongqing party secretary in March 2012 and his trial spurred speculation that party leaders couldn’t agree on the outcome of the trial.
The fact that officials have declared his trial open, technically meaning that the public and media can attend, signals Bo is cooperating, said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing.
His judgment may be calibrated to appeal to demands from Chinese people like Ma Lin, a 63-year-old retired middle school administrator.
“People will welcome the result as I think Bo will be harshly punished,” said Ma, who was traveling in Shanghai Wednesday. “Guilt among such high-ranking officials won’t be tolerated. I think he deserves a suspended death penalty.”
In Jinan, petitioners gathered Wednesday outside the courthouse where Bo’s trial will be heard to air their own claims of miscarried justice.
“There is no functioning law in China,” said Wu Guizhen, 58, who said she traveled from Beijing to demand compensation authorities never gave after demolishing her house in the Chinese capital. “They only employ the law if it’s beneficial to them.”