China Watches a Trial Unfold on Social Media

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HONG KONG -- Even in the inventive annals of Chinese propaganda, it was a first: show trial by microblog. Bo Xilai, the politician whose fall convulsed the Communist Party, stood trial on Thursday, and the government took the unprecedented step of reporting the proceedings to a nationwide audience of many millions over China's equivalent of Twitter.

The court in Jinan, a provincial capital in eastern China, reported the day's developments on Sina.com's Weibo service, a popular microblog platform broadly similar to Twitter. The reports, quotes and pictures that emerged in fits and starts from the courtroom drew riveted attention from the Chinese, testament to the public's fascination with Mr. Bo and to the power of the Chinese Internet. In recent decades, trials of former senior officials have mostly been muted in secrecy, often until hearings end and state media show the officials making tearful confessions.

"There's never been anything like this before," said Li Yonggang, an expert on the Internet and Chinese society at Nanjing University in eastern China. "It's likely that there's so much attention on this that they had to choose a relatively open way to report it. Otherwise, it would have triggered all kinds of speculation."

But as Thursday progressed, the trial began to look less polished. Mr. Bo scorned the charges and ridiculed prosecution eyewitnesses, and the microblog feed from the courthouse, although perhaps selective, gave him an unusually prominent podium. "I really saw the ugliness of a person who sold his soul," Mr. Bo said of one important witness for the prosecution, according to the court's running account.

Mr. Bo appears likely to end his public career in the same way that he advanced it: as the combative star in a drama played out over the Internet and in mass media.

"To begin with, everyone believed that it would all be prearranged," Mr. Li said. "But now it looks less sure."

Mr. Bo, 64, a former party leader of the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, faces trial on charges of bribery, corruption and abusing his power. He was dismissed from his posts and from the Communist Party last year, after the former police chief of Chongqing revealed accusations that Mr. Bo's wife had murdered a British businessman. Before Mr. Bo's fall, he had challenged the dour mold of Chinese Communist Party politics, courting media attention and cultivating journalists during meetings of the national Parliament. He cast himself as a visionary populist who wanted to return China to socialist egalitarianism.

The reaction of many Chinese Internet users to the trial cannot all have been to the government's liking, even among the comments that were not censored. Weibo became a raucous forum for and against Mr. Bo, with quite a few people voicing admiration for him or skepticism about the motives for ousting him.

Some swooned. "Bo Xilai is a picture of vigor," said one. Many shared a belief that the 27 million renminbi, or $4.4 million, he is reported to have taken through bribes and embezzlement would count as mere pocket money for many, more corrupt, officials.

"Old Bo took just over 20 million yuan," said one Weibo user, referring to China's renminbi currency. "A dinky little village party secretary could get more than him. It's just a case of winner takes all, the fate that comes from political defeat."

In one sign of the corrosive suspicion faced by the Communist Party, some people found reason to doubt, at least tongue in cheek, that the figure in the courtroom was the real Mr. Bo. There was meticulous debate about his height compared to that of the two guards who stood towering beside him.

Even citizens who want to see Mr. Bo convicted voiced doubt about the idea that his misdeeds outdid those of other officials. "Bo should be punished by the law," said one Weibo user. "But I hope that all criminal officials will be punished. That's the heartfelt wish of ordinary people."

The spectacle was a demonstration of how important the Internet has become in Chinese political life. For the government, it potentially offers a tool to monitor and persuade a population jaded by traditional, state-run media. By midyear, China had nearly 600 million officially registered Internet users. Even discounting duplicate and fake registrations, the number is a daunting challenge for a state that prizes its grip over information.

The Weibo service of Sina.com -- the biggest of China's microblog services -- had more than 500 million registered users at the end of 2012, according to the company. About 46 million people use the service daily, it said. Weibo, the Chinese word for microblog, is also used to refer to other such services.

The government recently started a new effort to consolidate control of the Internet. This week, the police in Beijing announced that they had arrested a gang that they said specialized in spreading scurrilous rumors against politicians, celebrities and even Lei Feng, an icon of piety to the party. Propaganda officials have shepherded leading voices on Weibo to pledge publicly to abide by seven rules intended to staunch the spread of rumors and antigovernment sentiment.

During Thursday's hearing, China's usually vigorous Internet censors seemed more relaxed about online comments than usual, or perhaps overwhelmed. The court's Weibo page attracted more than 300,000 direct followers, but many other readers followed the proceedings on other pages that copied the court's postings. By the end of the first day of the trial, more than 600,000 postings with the Chinese words for Bo Xilai had accumulated on the Weibo site, although it was impossible to say how many were put there on Thursday.

Mr. Bo's defiant performance in court is most unlikely to win him freedom. China's courts are controlled by the Communist Party; defendants in criminal trials rarely win, and virtually never in politically charged cases. "I think you're a political sacrificial object," said one Weibo user. "I don't believe that the remaining governors and ministers are clean."

Chris Buckley reported from Hong Kong, and Amy Qin from Beijing.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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