Fallen Chinese politician defiant as trial begins

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JINAN, China -- Bo Xilai, the politician who fell from the heights of China's elite, took a pugnacious stand Thursday in the opening session of China's most closely watched trial in decades, denying that he took millions of dollars in bribes and ridiculing his wife's testimony against him.

According to lengthy transcripts the court released in an extraordinary show of transparency, Mr. Bo, 64, called his wife's assertions that she had noticed anonymous deposits in their bank account "laughable."

He accused a businessman who had recorded video testimony against him of having "sold his soul." And he discounted his earlier confession to taking bribes, saying he had made statements to Communist Party investigators against his will, out of "opportunism and weakness" and under "mental strain."

Authorities' unexpected openness about the trial -- allowing a running court microblog that was followed by millions of Chinese directly, or through news reports drawing on it -- turned what many had expected to be banal theater into a showcase of Mr. Bo's defiance.

The dramatic day raised questions about how party officials would continue to steer a delicate political process that has captivated Chinese on the Internet.

Officials set up a media center in a hotel across the street in this eastern provincial capital. Dozens of foreign journalists and a handful of state media reporters watched large-screen televisions streaming the court feed.

When the first photograph from the trial was posted before 11:30 a.m., showing the 6-foot-1 Mr. Bo standing with a bemused look between two towering police officers, journalists charged the televisions and snapped photos.

Mr. Bo displayed some of the showmanship he deployed in climbing to the party chief post in Chongqing municipality and the elite Politburo, before he was felled last year by a scandal involving a British businessman's death, a case in which his wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted of murder. Mr. Bo is also charged with abuse of power over allegations that he obstructed an investigation into the death, and with embezzlement.

There were limits to the transparency. One person briefed on the proceedings said some testimony did not appear in released transcripts. And by evening, censors had sanitized the comments section of the court microblog, removing many remarks skeptical of the justice process.

Analysts said publicizing the hearing was the party's attempt to lend legitimacy to a trial in which a guilty verdict and long prison sentence were almost certainly preordained. The hearing was not as public as the televised trial in 1980 of the Gang of Four blamed for the havoc of the Cultural Revolution. But officials issued about 60 real-time updates over the court microblog.

"This is the most open trial of its kind, certainly the most open among the ones we have seen recently," Peking University law professor He Weifang said in an interview. "He seems to be speaking his mind, judging from his speech and the words he used." But overall, he added, "the whole court is controlled by Beijing."

The party's efforts at forging an aura of legitimacy could backfire. If evidence released during the trial proves flimsy, the public could side with Mr. Bo, whose Maoist slogans and new brand of socialism bolstered his popularity in Chongqing.

Since Mr. Bo was dismissed from his party chief post in March 2012 and placed under house arrest, party leaders have been concerned about his popular support. Some of the ardor among ordinary Chinese was evident Thursday morning, as Bo supporters, some carrying Mao Zedong posters, showed up in Jinan at courthouse barricades guarded by the police.

Some analysts say Mr. Bo might have agreed to accept the inevitable prison sentence in exchange for a chance to speak his mind, to a degree. All the information, including the official microblog posts, were still controlled by officials who generally knew what to expect, analysts noted.

The trial was to continue today, when prosecutors were to present evidence on the charges of embezzlement and abuse of power.

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