China's Bo Xilai: Prosecutors Seek Stiff Sentence as Trial Ends (Analysis)

Getty Images

The one-time rising political star faces corruption charges in an unusually public courtroom drama that drew global media coverage.

JINAN – China's trial of the century came to a close on Monday, with the country and the global media now waiting for a verdict in the case of disgraced former Communist Party member Bo Xilai, whose unusually public courtroom drama combined a tale of murder with heady political intrigue.

The 64-year-old Bo was the media-savvy shining light of the Communist Party who appeared destined for the very top until he suddenly disappeared from public view in April 2012 following his wife Gu Kailai's poisoning of British businessman Neil Heywood.

He was subsequently charged with taking nearly $4.4 million (27 million yuan) in illegal payments from prominent tycoons. Bo, also accused of corruption and abuse of power, will almost certainly be found guilty when a verdict is delivered at some point in the next few weeks.

Whereas once this kind of show trial would have played out on state-controlled TV and in newspapers, the events of Bo's trial were chronicled in a steady stream of microblog updates. Even the anchorwoman on Phoenix TV checked her cell phone to see the latest updates on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

"By adopting this method of dissemination, [the authorities] have managed to balance openness with control," Zhang Zhi'an, a journalism professor at the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said on his blog. "They have mounted a display of openness while keeping risks under control in a highly skillful manner."

Over five days of defiant cross-questioning, shocking revelations and bitter recrimination, the trial spanned many genres, from cop procedural to revenge tragedy, surreal comedy and, ultimately, soap opera.

The ruling Communist Party is hoping the trial will finally put an end to the country's biggest political scandal in decades and clear the way for president Xi Jinping to continue his plans for reforms to shore up the sluggish economy.

The scandal set off by Gu's poisoning of Heywood, apparently over a business deal gone wrong, damaged the party's credibility, and prosecutors want a harsh sentence.

"The defendant's crimes are extremely grave, and he also refuses to admit guilt. As such, the circumstances do not call for a lenient punishment but a severe one, in accordance with the law," a prosecutor told Jinan Intermediate People's Court.

The trial managed to combine an unusual openness with the more traditional secrecy surrounding how decisions are made in China. The legal process in Jinan was flagged as an "open trial," although the atmosphere was not seen as welcoming.

It was a tricky balancing act for the Chinese government because of global media attention. Foreign journalists were not allowed to enter the court to report, and at one point a hotel booking was canceled at the last minute because management had been told not to rent rooms to foreign journalists. However, in Jinan, local journalists were accredited and given blue ID badges to wear. And there were briefings for the media after every session.

The trial had been expected to last a few hours, but Bo came out fighting, and his defiance gave an occasionally startling insight in to the shady workings of the communist elite, and hinted at how his misconduct enriched his family.

A key piece of evidence was video testimony by Gu that seemed to indicate Bo knew about various illegal payments, including payments to the couple's son, Bo Guagua, who went to the British elite school Harrow, then Oxford University, followed by Harvard. He is now reportedly planning to attend Columbia Law School.

She claimed Bo, when he was mayor of Dalian, helped tycoon and family friend Xu Ming to buy the Dalian Shide soccer club and find land for a hot-air balloon project. In return there were gifts such as a multimillion-dollar villa near Cannes, cash and a Segway electric standup scooter for Guagua. Xu also paid for a trip to Africa that cost nearly $130,000, and among the gifts that Guagua brought back was "a piece of meat from a very exotic animal."

All the way through, Bo blamed his wife, whom he said was a convicted murderer who had repeatedly shown herself to be insane and a liar. As a senior Communist Party member, he was too busy to worry about plane ticket stubs, and anyway, she had made a deal to protect herself. "She's insane, and she's always making things up," he told the court after the poorly shot footage aired.

"Under conditions where her mental state is abnormal, the investigators put her under immense pressure to expose me," he added. She had compared herself to Jing Ke, the assassin who tried and failed to kill the Qin emperor who first unified China more than 2,000 years ago, as seen in Zhang Yimou's Hero.

It was notable how well Gu Kailai looked in her video testimony. During her trial a year ago, she looked bloated and unwell, which some said was due to the medication she was taking for depression, but in the video testimony she had slimmed down and looked relaxed and confident.

Then, in a move that was pure soap opera, Bo turned on his former protege Wang Lijun, the ex-police chief who fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu last year to inform that Gu had poisoned Heywood.

Wang claims Bo punched him when he told Bo what Gu had done. Bo responded by saying that he didn't punch him exactly; he wasn't a Chinese martial arts expert. The suggestion was it was more of a slap.

Bo then went on to tell the court that Wang had become infatuated with Gu, from whom Bo had been estranged over his various infidelities. Bo said his right-hand-man and his wife were as close as "white on rice."

"Wang Lijun has a secret crush and has confessed his love to her," he said. "He muscled in on my home, on my feelings, which is the real reason for his defection."

Throughout the trial Bo continued to deny any and all guilt, although he has conceded that he made mistakes in some cases.

He dismissed a confession he made earlier in the investigation saying it had been made under duress, and said he had also made some confessions hoping to earn forgiveness, retain his party membership and keep his career alive.

The decision to purge Bo exposed rifts within the ruling party as well as Chinese society, and his trial marks the biggest political scandal since the 1976 downfall of the Gang of Four at the end of the Cultural Revolution, the period of ideological frenzy that nearly tore China apart.

Since the start of the Bo Xilai affair, industryites have joked about the number of scripts sure to be written about what happened.

The question is: Who will be brave enough to try and get a script about Bo Xilai past the censor in China?