China: Bo Xilai trial by social media

A screen shows online microblog updates from court for the trial of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, August 22 in Jinan.

Story highlights

  • Live updates from the Bo Xilai trial were posted on a Chinese microblogging site
  • First time in a country where court proceedings are secret and outcome predetermined
  • Observers were surprised by the spirited defense offered by Bo, the disgraced politician
  • The flow of live updates decreased significantly on the second day of the trial

One of the most dramatic developments from the trial of disgraced senior politician Bo Xilai isn't what was said in court, but that the arguments were revealed at all.

The public received updates released on social media -- a first in a country where most court proceedings are held in secret and the outcome far from doubt.

While official state media has given cursory coverage to the trial, Chinese netizens fed an online frenzy of commentary about the case, which was the top trending topic Thursday on Sina.com's Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like microblogging site.

"The live coverage of Bo's case on Jinan Intermediate Court's Weibo feeds is awesome and a huge progress for media coverage on trials!" wrote Weibo writer Youyoulaihaiyouqu.

Followers of the Jinan court's Weibo account jumped from less than 10,000 on Wednesday to more than 330,000 by Friday morning as the court fed updates of the bribery case against Bo, whose downfall last year was laced with tales of murder and corruption, creating the Communist Party's biggest political crisis in decades.

Bo Xilai defends himself in court

    Just Watched

    Bo Xilai defends himself in court

Bo Xilai defends himself in court 02:24
PLAY VIDEO
China's 'trial of the century'

    Just Watched

    China's 'trial of the century'

China's 'trial of the century' 02:42
PLAY VIDEO
The mighty fall of Bo Xilai

    Just Watched

    The mighty fall of Bo Xilai

The mighty fall of Bo Xilai 07:50
PLAY VIDEO
Politician's supporters still pro-Bo

    Just Watched

    Politician's supporters still pro-Bo

Politician's supporters still pro-Bo 02:25
PLAY VIDEO

"While it's difficult to say whether Beijing censored the material -- foreign journalists were not allowed inside to cover the trial, so it's unclear how closely the official remarks hewed to what actually went down in the courtroom -- it is certainly China's first live-microblogged show trial," noted Isaac Stone Fish in Foreign Policy.

Once heir apparent for a place at the top of China's political elite, Bo is on trial on charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. His wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted last year of murdering a British businessman in a case that began Bo's downfall.

On Thursday, Bo gave a spirited defense against the bribery charges -- which in itself surprised observers.

According to posts by the court, Bo contested the claim that he had taken bribes from Tang Xiaolin, a businessman in the northeastern industrial city of Dalian, where Bo used to be mayor. After watching a video in which Tang detailed how he sent Bo money, Bo remarked, "I saw an ugly performance by a person who sold his soul," the court said.

There were two surprising elements from the dispatches Thursday from the court, according to Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution.

The first was that Bo has dared to reject the allegations against him, and the poor performance of the prosecution which Li described as "terrible."

He said any deal that had been done before the trial appears to be unraveling.

"All of a sudden, in my view, Bo Xilai has decided not to co-operate, but not completely. Because he did not go too far to condemn other leaders or reveal some other problems; this is probably what worried some of the leadership the most," Li said.

While official state media offered little commentary on the proceedings, Chinese netizens weren't afraid to wade in.

"After reading the whole transcript of the trial, I realized that the prosecutors actually failed to offer direct proofs of Bo taking bribes. Instead, they talked a bunch of issues that don't really have much to do with the accusations," wrote Yuxin.

Shudongjunaishudong: "Bo Xilai thought high of himself, abusing the power for personal gains and fooled the public. But he didn't know that those who misuse the power which granted by people will be severely punished according to the discipline of the Party and the law of the country."

Still, many supporters on Weibo applauded Bo's tenure as mayor of Chongqing, where he made his name as an anti-graft crusader. "You (referring to Bo) will always remain a great secretary in the eyes of Chongqing people!" wrote Suzui.

Some heralded the live-blogged trial as turning a page for transparency in China; others wondered whether Bo's defense itself was blessed by the state, as evidenced by the court's release of his statements.

But the court's feverish stream of dispatches on Thursday had slowed significantly on Friday, adding to the belief that the outcome of the trial in China -- where only 0.1% of cases return a not guilty verdict -- is of little doubt.

"I never care about politics but I think it's worth following right now because of Bo Xilai, but I can tell the result has been scripted, now is only a process to make people think that our country is fair and transparent," wrote Xiao Kui Kui-Cindy.

      Bo Xilai scandal

    • chinese.politician.sentenced_00023923.jpg

      Political science professor Yuhua Wang says he's surprised by the severity of the life sentence given to Chinese politician Bo Xilai.
    • This screen grab taken from state television CCTV footage broadcast on August 24, 2013 shows ousted Chinese political star Bo Xilai (C) speaking in the courtroom as he stands trial at the Intermediate People's Court in Jinan, China.

      In a letter to his family, the disgraced Communist Party leader reiterated his innocence but said he expected a lengthy prison sentence.
    • Was the trial of Bo Xilai (right) any more transparent than that of Jiang Qing and the "Gang of Four"?

      CNN Beijing bureau chief Jaime Florcruz compares his experience covering Bo's trial with a similarly explosive story in the early 1980s -- the "Gang of Four" trial.
    • This picture taken on September 29, 2008 shows the then Chongqing mayor Bo Xilan attending the "Ode to Motherland" singsong gathering in Chongqing. China's once high-flying communist politician Bo Xilai has been indicted for bribery and abuse of power, state media said on July 25, 2013 following a scandal that exposed deep divisions at the highest levels of government. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTOSTR/AFP/Getty Images

      While Chinese state media hailed the Bo Xilai trial as a show of "historic transparency," analysts saw its theatrics as part of a high-profile show trial.
    • This frame grab taken from Chinese television CCTV shows on September 18, 2012 shows former police chief Wang Lijun (R) facing the court during his trial in Chengdu, in southwest China's Sichuan province. The former police chief who set off China's biggest political scandal in years "did not contest" charges including defection and bribery at his trial, which ended on September 19, a court in Chengdu said. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO / CCTV

      The trial of Bo Xilai concluded with claims from Bo that his former police chief had a crush on his wife, Gu Kailai, who is serving time for murder.
    • The wife of a high-profile Chinese politician found guilty of murder has been described as funny, personable, attractive and charismatic.
    • Wang Lijun pictured last year at the National People's Congress in Beijing.

      The trigger of China's biggest political scandal in a generation, Wang Lijun was once a feared police chief whose crime fighting exploits inspired a TV series.
    • pkg grant inside china heywood hotel mystery_00002515

      A run-down hotel on the outskirts of Chongqing is the unlikely setting for a murder mystery. CNN's Stan Grant looks inside.