China's 'Trial of Century' Proves to Be a False Alarm

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

BEIJING -- Jiang Hao, a senior court administrator, seemed genuinely surprised on Monday morning when he arrived to find dozens of journalists huddling outside his courthouse in the southwestern city of Guiyang expecting the "trial of the century" to begin at any moment.

"I never thought so many of you would actually come all the way down here," Mr. Jiang said as reporters and camera operators sighed, stewed or just laughed off the absurdity of having flown more than 1,000 miles from Beijing based on what proved to be a false rumor.

Justice for Bo Xilai, the fallen party aristocrat and former Politburo member, would have to wait another day.

The episode, prompted by a Hong Kong newspaper report that promised a three-day trial in Guiyang, the provincial capital of Guizhou, highlighted a longstanding quandary facing the Chinese leadership that came to power in November: the disjunction between the Communist Party's aversion to transparency and the public's lack of trust in those who run the courts, the news media and every other lever of power.

The lack of reliable information is so pervasive that even Xinhua, the state-run news agency, sent reporters to the courthouse in Guiyang.

"Turns out we were all fooled," said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The mad rush to chase a nonexistent trial was partly aggravated by the government's prolonged silence regarding Mr. Bo, a once-rising political star who has been held incommunicado since his detention last March. But it also reflected the intense interest in one of China's most lurid scandals in recent memory.

Mr. Bo, after all, is not only accused of serial infidelity, "massive bribe taking" and abuse of power but investigators have also been exploring his role in covering up his wife's killing of a British businessman who she said was out to harm her son.

After a one-day trial in August, Mr. Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, received a suspended death sentence after she confessed to poisoning the Briton, Neil Heywood, in a hotel room in Chongqing, the southwestern municipality then run by her husband.

Just over a month later, Wang Lijun, the police chief under Mr. Bo, was convicted of numerous crimes, including trying to cover up the killing and briefly seeking refuge at the United States Consulate in Chengdu, where, according to information disclosed at his trial, he revealed to diplomats the details of Mr. Bo's and Ms. Gu's misdeeds.

Analysts say Mr. Wang's 15-year sentence, seen as especially lenient, was a reward for cooperating with investigators seeking to build a case against Mr. Bo. Among legal experts, there is little doubt that Mr. Bo will be severely punished; the question is how much party leaders will allow to be made public during what is certain to be a thoroughly stage-managed trial.

The initial news about the trial, based on a "usually well-informed source," was published on Friday by Ta Kung Pao, a party-backed newspaper in Hong Kong that is viewed as a reliable mouthpiece for Beijing's interests.

Professor Zhan and other experts say the government erred by failing to dispel the misinformation once the report had been picked up by domestic social media and foreign publications. "The central government should have responded directly, openly and in a timely manner," he said.

The official silence, and noncommittal statements by the law firm hired to defend Mr. Bo, only helped feed the speculation. Even court employees seemed to waffle, telling reporters on Friday that they had "yet to receive the case," which some interpreted as a coded acknowledgment that the case could arrive on Monday.

The government's flat-footed response was not unlike the way it handled Internet-fed speculation two years ago that the retired leader Jiang Zemin had died. Only after foreign publications began writing about Mr. Jiang's rumored demise did the state news media issue a statement that he was still alive.

Although the government is required by law to provide at least a three-day public notice before a trial starts -- and inform defense lawyers 10 days in advance -- many journalists have become accustomed to the party favoring its own interests over the niceties of Chinese law.

Jerome A. Cohen, an expert in Chinese law at New York University, said that he had tried to warn off those who believed the trial was imminent, but he also said that he understood why so many got caught up in the wild-goose chase to distant Guiyang.

"It does show the understandably huge mistrust of the Chinese legal system by experienced reporters and their willingness to believe that, in the biggest political case since the trial of the Gang of Four, the government would openly violate its declared legal procedures before the world," Professor Cohen said. He was referring to the 1981 show trial in which Mao's wife and three other party leaders were convicted of persecuting hundreds of thousands during the Cultural Revolution.

The only refutation of the article appeared on Sunday afternoon in the English-language version of Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid that also cited an anonymous source. By then, however, most reporters were already en route to Guiyang.

In its article, Global Times -- which did not run the article in its Chinese edition -- claimed that the trial would take place in the early spring and would last 10 days. Citing a source "close to the country's top judicial body," it cautioned against speculating about Mr. Bo's day of judgment.

"The information in terms of the date and location for the trial will certainly be made public in advance," it said.

On Monday, Mr. Jiang, the court official in Guiyang, tried his best to calm the crowd of journalists. After inviting them into a conference room, he promised to provide adequate notice should the trial in fact take place there -- a detail he could not confirm.

"We appreciate your hard work, but you don't need to waste your time here anymore," he said. "I think it's better for you all to go home."

Shi Da contributed research from Guiyang, China. Mia Li contributed research from Beijing.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here