JINAN, China -- A combative Bo Xilai came out swinging in the opening of his long-awaited trial, denying that he had accepted $4 million in bribes, claiming that witnesses lied and that money and gifts worth millions went only to his wife.
In his first appearance since being purged 18 months ago, the 64-year-old Bo – once a contender to lead China – said he had initially confessed to some of the crimes to the Communist Party’s investigators only because he was under “psychological pressure.’’
In a spirited defense, Bo dismissed a real estate developer who accused him of taking bribes as a “mad dog.” He referred to written testimony by his own wife as “comic and laughable,’’ according to a transcript released by the court.
Foreign journalists were not permitted inside the courtroom; only members of China's official media were permitted.
But the government – mindful of criticism that it was conducting a closed, sham trial – allowed the release of transcripts, still photographs, and, in one instance, an audio recording, through Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like service. As a result, social media were abuzz throughout the day with periodic updates about the testimony, and the court’s account quickly attracted 300,000 followers.
Keen as he was to defend himself, the 64-year-old Bo did not challenge the underlying process and indeed went out of his way to praise the judge at the Jinan Intermediate People's Court and his treatment by the Communist Party’s disciplinary commission.
"I had good living conditions, decent food and medical care. Most of the comrades were very polite," Bo said. "But that doesn’t exclude the psychological pressure. When I wrote the confession, I wasn’t myself. I was not a strong-minded person."
Wearing a white button-down shirt, black trousers and well-shined shoes, Bo looked very much his old, charismatic self, at least according to photographs. He conducted much of his own defense, skillfully cross-examining businessman Xu Ming, the only witness to testify live so far.
Under questioning, Xu admitted that he had never discussed with Bo any of the lavish gifts he’d given to the family, including a $3.3-million villa in Cannes.
Bo’s courtroom performance delighted his supporters, many of whom have complained he is being persecuted for his rivalry with current Chinese President Xi Jinping, who won a power struggle last year to head the Communist Party.
Many lawyers believe, however, that a deal was cut in advance in which Bo would be allowed to defend himself against the more serious charges of bribery in return for capitulating on some minor charges.
"If you’re going to have a show trial, you have to do it convincingly, or people won’t be satisfied,’’ said Liu Xiaoyuan, a prominent human-rights lawyer in Beijing.
Many Chinese had complained about the closed-door, perfunctory hearings staged in several recent high-profile cases, including that of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, who was convicted last year of murder in the death of a British businessman.
Liu also said that it is a clever strategy to deflect blame for taking the bribes on Gu, since she is already serving a suspended death sentence in the murder case and cannot face further punishment. Their son, Guagua, is living in New York and is out of reach of Chinese prosecutors.
"This is not the first time a Chinese official has tried the strategy in a corruption case, and it is very effective,’" Liu said.
Still, the trial offered a rare peak into the lavish lifestyles of Chinese Communist officials and the tremendous privilege they can command.
The businessman, Xu, who comes from the port city of Dalian, where Bo was mayor in the 1990s, testified that he had not only given the family a villa overlooking the Mediterranean, but had also paid off $38,000 of Guagua’s credit-card debts and given him an $11,500 motor bike and a $12,500 trip to Africa with friends. Xu frequently paid for Gu’s plane tickets to Europe, he said.
Bo claimed to be unaware of the gifts. He said he and his wife did not spend much time together, because she was mostly living in Europe with their son.
"Gu Kailai would never be so low-class as to talk about financial details with me," Bo testified. “It would be impossible to talk about the cost of airline tickets, or how much Guagua spent."
Bo admitted that he and his wife kept a safe at home stuffed with hundred dollar bills, although he disputed the prosecutor’s assertion that the money came from bribes. He said it came from his wife’s lucrative law practice.
"She had more money than I did," Bo said.
Gu did not testify against her husband, although she submitted a brief written statement about sums of cash totaling $110,000 found in the safe. Bo dismissed that statement as laughable. His court-appointed lawyer also suggested that Gu’s statements might not be reliable because of her "psychological condition." He did not elaborate.
The trial is expected to turn Friday from money to murder. Bo is accused of dereliction of duty for allegedly trying to cover up his wife's role in the murder of Neil Heywood, a British business associate who was found dead in 2011 in a hotel room in Chongqing, where Bo had been Communist Party secretary.
The city’s police chief, Wang Lijun, was dismissed by Bo after confronting him with evidence of the crime and ended up seeking asylum in a nearby U.S. consulate.
Lawyers believe that Bo could have a harder time fighting the dereliction of duty charges and might in fact admit to the crime, which is not treated as seriously as bribery under Chinese law.
The national broadcaster, CCTV, said the Bo trial would last two days and a verdict would be delivered in September.
The proceedings are taking place in Jinan, 250 miles south of the capital, Beijing. The city has a reputation for being politically reliable, one likely reason the Communist Party chose it as the locale for the trial. But protesters and Bo supporters from around China have congregated around the barricaded courthouse.
Bo supporters carried photographs of the late Chairman Mao Zedong, wore Mao T-shirts or badges – expressing their belief that Bo had embodied China’s best hope for carrying on Communist traditions.
The trial and the presence of a large foreign press contingent also drew swarms of people with other grievances against the Chinese leadership. Across from the courthouse, an older man climbed on a wall, took off his trousers to attract attention and displayed photographs of a home that had been demolished. Police coaxed him down after more than an hour.
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