Stagecraft rules trial of China's Bo

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JINAN, China -- In the weeks before Bo Xilai, the fallen Communist Party star, went on trial here on corruption-related charges, senior officials from the powerful party investigation agency told him about two officials who had been tried earlier on somewhat similar charges, Mr. Bo said in court.

One, a former vice governor of Anhui province, was sentenced to death and executed in 2004 for taking bribes and stealing $1.6 million. The other, a former railway minister, received a suspended death sentence -- essentially life in prison -- in July, mainly for taking $10.6 million in bribes, a much larger amount.

The senior officials' point, Mr. Bo told the court in a 10-minute speech Friday, according to two people briefed on the proceedings, was that the party could mete out any punishment it chose, and that Mr. Bo's fate rested on whether he decided to cooperate during his own trial on charges of bribe taking, embezzlement and abuse of power.

Mr. Bo's speech and some other instances in which he railed against threats and hardships during his 17 months in captivity have not appeared in the torrent of court transcripts released publicly since the trial -- China's most closely watched legal theatrics in three decades -- began Thursday.

Instead, those transcripts show Mr. Bo cross-examining witnesses, ridiculing the testimony of his wife and former colleagues, and seemingly free to play his part as defendant however he chooses.

But, analysts say, despite the fact that the party, in an unexpected show of relative transparency, has allowed millions of Chinese citizens to witness much of Mr. Bo's performance through a running court microblog, the trial remains political stagecraft, fashioned around Mr. Bo's combative character.

The spectacle, they say, is an effort by the party to convince his elite party allies and ordinary supporters that Mr. Bo, a populist politician and son of a revolutionary leader, had his say in court, and that the long prison sentence he is expected to get is based on evidence of crimes committed, not political payback.

State news media highlight daily the evidence presented against Mr. Bo.

"The authorities hope to separate the Bo Xilai case from politics," said Chen Jieren, a legal commentator. "They want people to think this was only an anti-corruption struggle, not a political and ideological struggle."

While the multimedia gambit may have won Mr. Bo some additional sympathy and exposed cracks in the prosecution, the legal parrying between the defendant and his accusers has also lent considerable credibility to the political theater.

Perhaps most important for the party, what has most captivated ordinary Chinese -- thanks to headlines in major state media outlets -- is a mountain of testimony that depicts Mr. Bo as the archetypal corrupt official, complete with a spoiled son and a wife who murdered a British businessman. (She was convicted in August 2012.)

Evidence at Mr. Bo's trial has shown his wife, Gu Kailai, and son, Bo Guagua, regularly taking favors from a tycoon friend, Xu Ming, including a $3.2 million villa on the French Riviera; a $131,000 six-person vacation to Africa in 2011 that included use of a private jet; a $12,000 Segway for the son, who also traveled to Paris, Venice, Argentina, Cuba and, for the 2006 World Cup, Germany.

Mr. Bo has not denied that cozy relationship and those favors in court -- he only disavowed knowledge of their specific costs -- and the portrait the testimony paints of his family is likely to condemn him in the eyes of many Chinese citizens who abhor the official corruption so rampant in China.

More salacious details of decadence and conflict in the Bo family emerged over the weekend. Mr. Bo testified Saturday that he had an affair that drove his wife and son to Britain.

On Sunday, he quibbled over testimony from a former Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, who had said Mr. Bo punched him, bloodying his face, after he confronted him with suspicions that Gu had murdered the Briton, Neil Heywood.

In another awkward moment, Mr. Bo insisted Saturday that he had not intended to embezzle $820,000 from a state construction project in the city of Dalian, where he had been mayor, and disputed testimony from a planning official that he had told his wife over a cell phone to take the money.

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