JINAN, China (AP) — Standing trial Thursday in China’s biggest scandal in decades, ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai defended himself against corruption allegations, saying he was pressured into making a confession and strongly denying charges he took millions of dollars in bribes.
After months in which little was revealed about the case against Bo, prosecutors began rolling out details, saying he used his wife and son to help collect more than $4.3 million in illicit money and assets. Featuring in the prosecution’s allegations were a villa in France, a hot-air balloon project and a football club.
Once the powerful party boss in the megacity of Chongqing, the charismatic Bo fell into disgrace early last year following allegations that his wife had killed a British businessman and that he attempted to cover it up. Thursday marked the first time he was seen in public in 18 months, since shortly after the scandal emerged.
He is accused of abuse of power, bribery and embezzlement in a case that appears to be carefully focused to avoid allegations that could expose the party’s factional squabbling or show the impunity with which top Chinese officials operate before they fall from favor.
Reporters from foreign media outlets were kept out of the courtroom for the trial, which is widely presumed to have a predetermined outcome: conviction. But in an unusual display of openness for a major political trial in China, court officials have been releasing frequent microblog updates on the testimony, suggesting that ruling Communist Party officials are confident of minimizing damage from a scandal that exposed a murder and machinations among China’s elite.
Prosecutors said Bo used his wife, Gu Kailai, and his son, Bo Guagua, as intermediaries in accepting more than $3.5 million in the northeast city of Dalian, where he once held key posts. They also alleged that Bo instructed an underling to keep quiet an $800,000 payment to the city, and that Bo diverted the money into personal funds with the help of his wife, according to updates on the microblog site Sina Weibo posted by the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court.
In response, Bo said he had been coerced into making a false confession to party investigators that he had taken payments from Tang Xiaolin, the general manager of an international development corporation owned by the Dalian municipality.
“The matter of me taking money on three occasions, as Tang Xiaolin said, does not exist,” Bo said, according to one of the Jinan court updates. “During the time I was being investigated by the Central Disciplinary Commission, I once admitted to this matter against my will. … However, at the time, I had absolutely no knowledge of the nature of the matter. My mind was a total blank.”
The court updates also said Bo hoped his trial would be fair: “I hope the judge will reasonably and fairly judge, and judge this according to the laws of our country.”
In a separate bribery allegation, prosecutors said Bo helped a Dalian businessman, Xu Ming, in efforts to buy a football club and obtain land for a hot-air balloon project without proper procedures. They said Xu bought Bo’s family a villa in France. Bo denied the charges and even that the two were friends.
In one of the trial’s most gripping moments, Bo conducted a withering cross-examination of Xu, forcing him to repeatedly concede that he had not directly discussed any of the projects with him.
“Thank you for seeking truth from facts,” Bo said at one point, using one of Mao Zedong’s favorite expressions.
He also offered a frank assessment of his relationship with his wife, saying the two had grown apart due to career demands.
“I’ve always considered Bo Gu Kailai to be a person of culture and taste, a woman of modern thinking,” he said.
Bo’s removal marked the biggest upheaval in China’s leadership since the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989. Bo’s revival of the symbolism of Mao Zedong’s radical era had unnerved China’s previous leadership, although current leader Xi Jinping, installed last fall, has appeared keen to adopt his own brand of Mao-like tactics.
The trial went into recess after about eight hours of testimony and was to resume at 8:30 a.m. Friday.
Bo entered the courthouse Thursday in a convoy under police escort. Though kept far away from the media, some of Bo’s supporters gathered outside a security perimeter, intermittently yelling out, “He served the people!” and “He was a good cadre!”
That Bo enjoys residual popularity among some of the Chinese public underscores how effective the media-savvy politician was in portraying himself as a man of the people. He spoke often of tackling the burgeoning income inequality gap, and introduced housing and other social policies in Chongqing that made him beloved by the poor.
Bo mobilized people in Chongqing to sing communist anthems, campaigns that resonated with people who’ve felt increasingly alienated from a party and government seen as corrupt and morally bankrupt.
In denying the corruption charges, Bo appeared to be using the trial as a last-ditch effort to restore the reputation he had so carefully cultivated of being a model official.
“It’s definitely the last performance of Bo Xilai on the platform of history,” said Zhang Lifan, a Chinese historian and political analyst. “Bo is a man with no bottom line and for him, if his political life is ruined, it is equal to killing him.”
“He knows that he’s a banner to many of his fans and it’s his last chance to go all out to defend his reputation,” Zhang said.
The scandal was triggered last year when Bo’s police chief, a top aide, fled to a U.S. consulate in a neighboring city, an event that embarrassed the party’s leadership ahead of a key political transition. It would later emerge that the police chief had evidence of the Briton’s murder in late 2011.
A verdict of guilt in the charges against Bo is all but assured, because the outcomes of such trials involving high-profile politicians in China are usually decided by backroom negotiations by politicians and handed down by the court. Bo’s downfall also has been widely perceived as the result of his defeat in party infighting ahead of China’s once-a-decade leadership transition last fall.
“Bo Xilai’s faction fell out of grace during the power struggle among top leaders,” said Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent human rights lawyer based in Beijing. “In reality, it does not matter what he is charged with … because this is a political trial, which does not represent the spirit of law.”
Bo’s wife confessed to killing Briton Neil Heywood and was handed a suspended death sentence last year that will likely be commuted to life imprisonment. Bo’s aide, Wang Lijun, was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for making his thwarted defection bid and helping Gu cover up the murder.
Analysts have noted that none of the charges against Bo appear to involve the widespread human rights abuses alleged to have been carried out during his unfettered rule as Chongqing party chief, including during his much-publicized crackdown on the city’s mafia gangs.
Jinan resident Yu Ming, 46, questioned whether the trial would bring greater openness in China.
“The real questions are, did he not trample the law? Did he not violate human rights? We shouldn’t just look at corruption alone,” Yu said. “What we are more concerned about is, after the Bo Xilai case is over, what direction will China go in? Will we have human rights? Will we have the right to vote?”