China's Big Political Trial Takes A Dramatic Turn

Chinese politician Bo Xilai is in court for a second day — accused of corruption and involvement in an attempted cover-up of his wife's murder of a British businessman. The trial opened on Thursday, and Bo put up a fierce defense. But on the second day, it appears he has been silenced.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's turn now to China, where there has been a dramatic change in how one of that country's biggest trials in decades is playing out. The famously charismatic politician Bo Xilai is on trial for corruption. And he started yesterday with a spirited self-defense. Today, he appears to have been silenced. And both days say a lot about how power and justice work in the country.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from the eastern city of Jinan, where he's been covering the trial. Anthony, good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hello, David.

GREENE: So before we get to today, let's remember how this trial began. I mean, a lot of people were surprised by how much we were actually hearing from the trial.

KUHN: That's correct. We did not get a live television feed, but a lot of pictures and texts - and even some audio were coming from the court's microblog website. Yesterday was all about charges that he took $3.5 million in bribes. Bo Xilai denied that. He called a witness who accused him of it a mad dog. His wife testified that he did it as well, and he said she was mentally unstable. He had previously admitted to taking those bribes, but yesterday he retracted his confession, saying that it was coerced. So, he really rolled back the government's case against him, and it was surprising, I think, for people who watched.

GREENE: And all of this was attracting attention, it sounds like, on the streets outside.

KUHN: That's correct. There were big crowds of onlookers on the street yesterday, quite a few of his supporters. And people were having a genuine debate, sometimes very heated about Bo Xilai and his policies and the trial that was going on. A lot of people felt that he was on the right track. These were people who were angry about inequality and injustice in China and they felt that this was a political trial, that it was not really about corruption.

GREENE: And then how did everything change today?

KUHN: Well, first of all, there was nobody on the street today. There was police everywhere, police tape everywhere, but almost no people. There was very little information coming out of the court via the microblog, very few postings. Yesterday, we had detailed transcripts and pictures. Today, very little. All there was of interest was that the court showed a pre-taped video of Bo Xilai's wife, Gu Kailai, testifying about his taking bribes. It was not strong. Basically, what she was saying he should have known about this money that was coming from a businessman. And, again, he just rejected it. But he was not allowed to put up a spirited defense the way he was yesterday.

GREENE: And so why do we think this happened? I mean, does the government just nervous that Bo was sort of running the show, in a way?

KUHN: I think the government feels like it lost control. And there's a funny saying in China, which goes something like when you try to control everything it leads to stagnation and as soon as you loosen up, it's total chaos. So, I think they tried to present a semblance of openness. They tried to show that this trial was procedurally in order, that Bo's rights were being insured, that he was allowed to question and cross-examine. And the fact of the matter is that the guy is a journalism major, he's a master debater. And a lot of people just got the impression that the judges and the prosecutors and the witnesses were just not a match for this guy and he ran circles around them. And, again, if, as people assume, the outcome of the trial was preordained by the leadership in Beijing, it's going to be very hard to make it stand up in court. It's going to be very hard to make it all public and still keep the facade intact.

GREENE: What happens next, Anthony? This trial was supposed to wrap up this afternoon.

KUHN: Well, yes. The state media said that this trial was going to take two days, but as of this morning, the second day of the trial, they were still only dealing with the first allegation. Now, the most damaging and potentially hazardous for the government is the final allegation, which is that he used his power to obstruct an official investigation into his wife's role in the murder of a British businessman named Neil Haywood. I mean, they're not even talking about whether he was complicit in the murder, just that he was responsible for the cover-up. And they haven't dealt with this. And if they think they had trouble controlling him on the corruption part, this could be even tougher.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Anthony Kuhn talking about one of the biggest trials in China in decades, the trial of Bo Xilai. Anthony, thanks a lot.

KUHN: You're welcome, David.

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