Blow-by-blow, Chinese court tweets Bo Xilai trial

Observers caution that the appearance of openness is not the same as transparency

BEIJING, China – Much of China was riveted Thursday to the stream of Twitter-like updates from the trial of disgraced politician Bo Xilai — even a TV anchorwoman was seen on a live national program checking her cellphone for the latest posting.

The Jinan Intermediate People’s Court in eastern China began its blow-by-blow updates on its Sina Weibo microblog 21 minutes before the trial opened, and kept up a steady stream through the day, including details on testimony, photos and even an audio clip from a key witness.

“When the court’s Weibo is the only source of information about the trial, is it wrong to check my cellphone?” anchorwoman Yang Shu of Phoenix TV wrote on her own microblog. “It’s better to announce the information with my head down than having nothing to say with my head up. This is the era of new media.”

Followers of the court’s Weibo postings jumped from 70,000 to more than 300,000 during the day, and some posts were reposted tens of thousands of times, including a photo of Bo standing trial in a white shirt with his hands crossed in front of himself without a pair of cuffs.

The display of openness was unprecedented in China in recent decades for this kind of political trial, which is normally considered orchestrated political theatre with a foregone conclusion of guilt. Some reporters for state media were also allowed in the courtroom.

Zhang Zhi’an, a journalism professor at Sun Yet-sen University in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, said the posts were a clever move by the court in that they offered the appearance of openness while retaining the control of information.

“The postings could be selective,” Zhang said.

Beijing-based rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said the posts did not make up for the fact that Bo had been barred from meeting with his family for 18 months and could not choose his own lawyers.

“Without fair procedures, how can you have a fair outcome?” Pu said.

Nevertheless, the Weibo posts mark progress in transparency, said Yang Dali, a political scientist at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing.

“It is a great move by the Jinan court. In many ways, it has lent a lot more credibility to this case,” Yang said. “You read the case, and you can get a sense of different personalities. It is a very riveting case so far.”

The court made 59 posts on Thursday, portraying an orderly but lively courtroom with lengthy recounts of the exchanges among the defendant, his lawyers, prosecutors, witnesses and the judge.

In one exchange, prosecutors accused Bo of taking bribes from business associate Tang Xiaolin. Bo flatly denied the accusation. “The matter of me taking money on three occasions, as Tang Xiaolin said, does not exist,” he said, adding that he had once admitted the bribe-taking only because of “mental pressure.”

Prosecutors later responded: “Judge, the defendant has not provided truthful testimony in this court. On the issue of Tang Xiaolin giving money three times to the defendant, the prosecution will provide evidence that will verify it.”

At one point, Bo appeared to thoroughly cross-examine a businessman who alleged he paid bribes to the politician.

Shanghai-based lawyer Si Weijiang said the court’s posts offered more details than expected. “Bo’s challenges to the allegations were quite powerful, and they are based on his personality, and he is not an easy person,” he said.