Bo trial gives Chinese a dose of political soap opera

On WeChat, an increasingly popular social networking platform on mobile phones in China, a telling set of photographs on the Bo Xilai case is making the rounds.

It’s two sets of vertically aligned photos, four on each side; one has a mug shot of Bo’s father Bo Yibo, a powerful politician in the ‘70s and ‘80s, followed by a photograph of Bo himself, then his wife, and then of Bo again standing trial in the Jinan courtroom flanked by two security personnel, appreciably taller than him.

The adjoining set has the mug shot of President Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, another revolutionary and powerful leader, and then a photo of Xi himself, followed by that of his wife and the last of Xi again. Xi is shown accompanying the visiting Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, during a Guard of Honour, with an impeccably dressed military officer to his right.

Not all photographs tell a thousand words. But these two sets of eight photographs tell a story worth a book. It tells the story of two princelings – that’s what the sons of powerful politicians who are powerful themselves are called in China – whose careers are now in completely opposite spectrums; in fact, Bo’s doesn’t quite exist anymore. One became the general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and President, and the other is waiting in an anonymous detention centre for sentencing – all this happened in about a year.

The trial generated a lot of interest among the Chinese public.

Friends shared stories about their parents and relatives living in faraway provinces huddling around television sets and following the developments over pots and pots of tea.

More than 400000 netizens had signed up to follow the official microblog of the court in Jinan in eastern China. Millions more would have followed it on state-run television channels and radio stations which were following the case closely.

No poll was conducted to gauge the opinion of the people on the trial. But state media, both television and newspapers (at least the ones in English) expectedly telecast and broadcast interviews in which citizens denounced Bo and his policies and praised the government and the CPC for acting tough against corruption.

The national broadcaster, CCTV, handpicked positive opinions from China’s Twitter-like Weibo platforms. “All hail the Party and its policies and down with Bo” the running motif.

Bo’s comments on his wife (mad, insane) and on his former colleague, the police chief Wang Lijun (liar, deceptive), did generate a snigger. A bunch of friends said they did not expect Bo to dump all the blame on others so blatantly. It appeared that his wife, Gu Kailai, was trying to protect their son, Bo Guagua, while the father was trying to label himself as someone wronged against.

Others were quite impressed by Bo’s defiant denials of the allegations against him. From Bo’s replies, they surmised that his was a political prosecution not a criminal one.

Some found Bo’s revelations about his adultery and Wang’s obsession with his wife, Gu Kailai, fascinating. The details of the French villa, son Bo Guagua getting rare game meat from Africa and the former Politburo member slapping Wang gave them a rare look into the life and relationships among the elite of China’s political class.

The bits of sex talk – adultery and the love triangle – was China’s version of, say, the trial of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.

Comments on Weibo on the case, according to reports, were heavily censored with largely pro-government comments allowed to remain untouched.

The BBC quoted a few users complaining about the censorship and asking questions about the motive behind doing so,
“If the leaders are truly confident, why do they delete comments? They’re cheating themselves and cheating others!” said one.

“Texting a trial live by text? That’s not right,” noted one. Another user, according to the BBC, complained: “This texting method is just a way to maintain control, since it’s easy to filter or censor things.”

Such comments did not deter the government from using its media arm to heap praise on itself for releasing updates through the microblog.

There is no way to find out what actually transpired within the court as those attending the proceedings were most likely handpicked. The released transcripts could well have been scrutinised and censored before being uploaded.

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