Fall of a princeling: Bo Xilai’s trial by Chinese social media

For the first time in Chinese legal history, the court published transcripts of Bo Xilai trial via social media. EPA/Jinan Intermediate People’s Court

The trial of former official Bo Xilai is a significant benchmark for social media’s role in increasing transparency in the Chinese justice system, at least when it comes the trials of party officials.

Who is Bo Xilai?

Bo Xilai is one of the princelings of Chinese politics. After successful tenures as the mayor of Dalian and governor of Liaoning Province, he was promoted to Minister of Commerce from 2004 to 2007. From November 2007 to 2012 he served as a member of the Central Politburo of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) and secretary of CPC’s Chongqing branch.

In Chongqing, Bo became well known for his iron-fisted populism. He initiated campaigns against mafia gangs, improved social welfare and enhanced economic growth.

Bo also launched the controversial “red culture” movement which aimed to revive the spirit of China’s revolutionary era. Because of his promotion of egalitarian values and the effectiveness of the “Chongqing model”, Bo became a darling of the Chinese New Left. Some of his supporters called him the “Vladimir Putin of China”.

The CPC would prefer that officials “know their place” in the power hierarchy rather than develop power individually. Nevertheless, Bo was a promising candidate for promotion to the elite Politburo Standing Committee.

However, his political career came to an abrupt end after his police chief, Wang Lijun, sought asylum at the United States consulate in Chengdu. Wang was fleeing the repercussions of his involvement in the murder of Englishman Neil Heywood, committed by Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai.

After the new CPC leadership came into office, Bo was stripped of all his party positions and expelled from the party.

Social media and the ‘trial of the century’

On August 22, 2013, the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court in Eastern China heard Bo’s case. For the first time in Chinese legal history, the court published trial transcripts through China’s most popular social media platform, Sina Weibo.

Bo was charged with receiving 21.79 million yuan (A$3.99 million) from local businessmen. Bo Xilai tried to win an acquittal through dramatic defence against most charges. Hearings finished on August 26 and the case is still awaiting final judgement.

The official Weibo account of Jinan Intermediate People’s Court. Sina Weibo

In China, trials of party officials have usually been muted in secrecy. Political housecleaning has generally been resolved in closed-door courts with the state media showing only final judgements.

This time, despite the trial itself being accessible only to the party’s leading mouthpieces, the authority “live blogged” the hearings via Sina Weibo. The official account of Jinan Intermediate People’s Court (@Jinanzhongyuan) gained more than 590,000 followers. It released 160 posts in the form of explanatory texts, video evidences, and images of complete trial transcripts. Some posts were forwarded hundreds of thousands of times.

‘Bo Xilai trial’ trend spikes on Sina Weibo. Weibo Index

Weibo became the main forum for public discussions about the trial. More than 1.8 million posts were made about the “Bo Xilai trial”, ranking first of all Weibo topics for the period. The most intensive discussion occurred on the first and last days of the trial, both with more than 450,000 posts respectively.

By contrast, traditional media coverage of this trial was left in an embarrassing situation. The party’s media outlets attended the hearings but were muted in their ability to report in detail. As such, most journalists were reduced to reproducing information from the court’s official Weibo account.

One Phoenix Television (Hong Kong) news presenter even looked down at her mobile phone to check the Weibo updates of the trial when she was on air. Commenting later, she said:

Gazing down for the latest news is better than raising head to say nothing new.

Phoenix Television’s news presenter Yang Shu checks her mobile phone for updates of Bo’s trial on air. Sina Weibo

A nascent civil society

Many Chinese netizens viewed the court’s practice as a sign of big progress.

Weibo user @haolinlove commented:

The trial is so open and transparent. I feel I am at the hearing. I believe I am witnessing history.

Another, @biexiangxinnvren523, posted:

This Weibo live broadcast of the trial breaks through the conventional practice of limited openness and makes a refreshing change. The development of the rule of law will be promoted into a new stage, and our party’s anti-corruption construction will turn the new page.

The New York Times has approvingly reported the court’s use of the microblog format as demonstrating the new Chinese leadership’s determination to display transparent governance.

The Age argued that the use of microblogging has potentially raised the political cost of committing grotesque judicial abuses and may display real reform of the Chinese legal system.

But this transparency had limits. The decision to prosecute Bo Xilai was entirely political. Further, as the New York Times revealed, the released transcripts appeared to be edited and that censors removed many comments on the blog that were sceptical of the justice process.

Such caution does not come from thin air. Just days ago Beijing police announced they had arrested several Weibo users who specialised in spreading rumours against politicians, celebrities, and other high-profile figures. There is no sign that the government has the will to substantially liberalise Chinese internet.

While many citizens hope the trial represents the government’s stand against corruption, many Weibo users report gaining a better impression of Bo Xilai. His performance is perceived as skillful as upholding the authority’s stance and fighting back with logic and eloquence.

Bo is unlikely to meet true justice. His fall from grace may be as much attributable to long-standing struggles among political factions as it is his personal actions. Many Weibo users speculated that Bo was a sacrifice because there are likely to be many more corrupt officials out there.

Nevertheless, this trial is a significant stepping stone towards a more transparent Chinese government.