Bo Xilai denies China bribes as trial opens in Jinan

Martin Patience: Bo Xilai apparently showed "feistiness" in court

Disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai has fought back in court against charges of bribery on the opening day of the country's biggest political trial in decades.

Mr Bo said he was coerced into making a confession and rubbished testimony from witnesses who included his wife.

The former Chongqing Communist Party boss is also charged with corruption.

He faces charges of abuse of power relating to his wife's role in the murder of a British businessman.

Two years ago the 64-year-old high-flier was seen as a candidate for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee, China's seven-member top decision-making body.

But in February 2012, as China prepared for its once-in-a-decade leadership handover, questions emerged over the death of a British businessman, Neil Heywood.

Analysis

Is the Bo Xilai trial an act of tightly scripted political theatre or an unexpectedly colourful legal showdown?

The Chinese authorities have taken pains to demonstrate that this trial is seemingly open and transparent by issuing a constant stream of updates on Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

However, the updates offer a limited, one-sided view of what is going on in the courtroom.

Criticisms of the trial have been deleted from Weibo, leaving the Jinan court's account of the proceedings as the only real source of information on the trial.

On the other hand, even the bite-sized bits of information on Weibo cannot hide that Bo Xilai's testimony has been surprisingly belligerent. He has disputed charges and witness testimony against him, including that of his own wife.

Mr Bo's seemingly energetic defence might also be part of the authorities' attempts to demonstrate that the former Chongqing Party boss will receive a fair hearing. Is this a game of legal smoke and mirrors? We have no choice but to continue to follow Weibo for more updates.

Mr Bo's downfall was seen as the biggest political shake-up to hit China's ruling elite in decades. His wife, Gu Kailai, has since been convicted of Mr Heywood's murder.

Correspondents say the trial is as much about getting rid of a popular politician as it is about criminal wrongdoing. Mr Bo is widely expected to be found guilty.

Events in the courtroom gripped the nation. "Bo is a psychologically tough man. This kind of person is very appealing. I don't think he will plead guilty easily," one person wrote on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo.

'Fairly and justly'

The trial is taking place at the Intermediate People's Court in Jinan, in eastern Shandong province. The court is providing an account of proceedings on its official microblog.

"I hope the judge will try this case fairly and justly according to the law of the country," Mr Bo reportedly said.

Five of Mr Bo's relatives are said to be in court, along with 19 journalists and 84 other people. Foreign journalists have not been allowed in.

According to the indictment posted by the court, Mr Bo is accused of receiving bribes totalling 21.8m yuan ($3.56m; £2.28m) from two Dalian-based businessmen.

Mr Bo went on the offensive, denying accepting any money in the form of bribes.

The court microblog quoted him as saying about one of the cases: "That [businessman] Tang Xiaolin gave me three bribes - that did not happen. He asked me to help him sort out something, and these were all done according to procedure."

Mr Bo said he had admitted taking three bribes from Mr Tang "against his will" under questioning, adding: "What I meant was that I was willing to take the legal responsibility but I had no idea of all these details back then."

Using unexpectedly strong language, he described Tang Xiaolin as a "crazy dog" who was "selling his soul" to reduce his sentence, which brought a rebuke from the judge.

Bo Xilai, is escorted into court by two police officers during his trial in Jinan, Shandong province 22 August 2013, in this still image taken from video Bo Xilai - once seen as a top leader - is being tried for corruption, bribery and abuse of power in Jinan.
Police officers stand next to the door of the Jinan Intermediate People's Court building Security has been tightened at the court where the trial is being held.
The convoy believed to be carrying disgraced politician Bo Xilai arrives at the Intermediate People's Court for his trial in Jinan, Shandong province on 22 August 2013 Early on Thursday, a van thought to be carrying Bo Xilai arrived at the court.
A supporter holds a placard during a rally behind a police barricade near the Jinan Intermediate People's Court on 22 August 2013 Police sealed off roads leading to the court and a small group of supporters of Mr Bo held a protest as the trial got under way.
A woman reads a billboard at the Jinan court announcing the trial of Bo Xilai Here a woman reads a notice on the court billboard announcing Mr Bo's trial.
Police stand guard outside the Intermediate People's Court in Jinan The court has probably been chosen as it is far from centres of support for Mr Bo - and foreign reporters are being kept outside.

Mr Bo said accusations he had taken bribes totalling more than 20 million yuan from a second businessman, Xu Ming, were "completely untrue".

He said that he "knew nothing" about a property owned by his wife near Nice in France or about Xu Ming sponsoring his son Bo Guagua's schooling.

"Gu Kailai only told me that Xu Ming is kind to Guagua - that's all," he told the court. "Xu Ming was Gu Kailai's friend and not mine."

In an afternoon full of surprises, Mr Bo was allowed to cross-examine Xu Ming. Asked if he had told the politician about funding a trip by Bo Guagua to Africa, or buying expensive presents for him and Gu Kailai, the businessman repeatedly replied "no".

Xu Ming is in custody. Tang Xiaolin's whereabouts are unclear.

Mr Bo reserved some of his strongest remarks for his wife's testimony, which he called "ridiculous". In written evidence provided by prosecutors to the court, Gu said she had seen a large amount of money in the family's safes matching the amount allegedly given to Mr Bo by Mr Tang.

"How could she say for certain that I put the $50,000 or $80,000 into the safes?" he asked.

The court session was adjourned until 08:30 (00:30 GMT) on Friday.

Hearings would last two days, Chinese state television CCTV said earlier in a tweet, with a verdict "likely in early September".

Security was tight at the court, with police blocking the gates and lining roads leading up to it.

'Resolute action'

According to the court indictment, the corruption charges against Bo Xilai relate to the alleged embezzlement of public money in 2002.

"While serving as governor of Liaoning Province, Bo used his post to conspire with others to embezzle five million yuan of public funds from the Dalian government," the charge sheet reads.

The abuse of power charge is connected to his wife's role in Mr Heywood's murder and his treatment of Wang Lijun, his now-jailed former police chief whose flight to the US consulate brought the case out into the open, the court indictment said.

As party leader in Chongqing, Bo Xilai was seen as a powerful, populist and charismatic figure.

He was known for two high-profile campaigns: a large-scale crackdown on crime and a drive to promote China's old communist values. But analysts said his ambition earned him enemies and he was considered controversial by top party leaders.

Bo Xilai scandal: Timeline

  • 2 February 2012 -Wang Lijun seeks refuge at the US consulate in Chengdu
  • 15 March - Bo Xilai is removed from his post as party chief in Chongqing
  • 26 March - UK confirms it has asked China to re-examine Neil Heywood's death
  • 10 April - Bo Xilai is stripped of his Communist Party posts and his wife Gu Kailai is investigated over Neil Heywood's death
  • 20 August - Gu Kailai is given a suspended death sentence for the murder of Neil Heywood
  • 28 September - Bo Xilai is expelled from the Communist Party
  • 25 July 2013 - Bo Xilai is charged with corruption, bribery and abuse of power

In February 2012, around the time that China was preparing to promote a new generation of leaders, his police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to the US consulate in Chengdu amid an apparent fall-out with Mr Bo.

Shortly afterwards, Chinese authorities announced that they were reinvestigating the death of Mr Heywood, and both Mr Bo and his wife disappeared from public view.

Gu Kailai has since been jailed for the murder of Mr Heywood - a crime she carried out, state media say, because of differences over a business deal. Wang has also been jailed for his role in covering up events, among other charges.

Mr Bo is the last major player in connection with the case to face trial. Interest has been intense, with many Chinese microbloggers speaking out.

Most expressed scepticism about the proceedings, judging the trial merely a political show. Nevertheless a large number still believe Mr Bo has a case to answer when it comes to corruption and abuse of power.

Herkuang in Shanghai says: "This Bo Xilai trial thing is merely a procedural thing. Those [party] elders have already made up their minds on what to sentence him with... Just watch the end result."

But some of comments about Mr Bo and his alleged conduct were dripping with sarcasm. "What a clean official! Just one count of bribe-taking in 30 years as a civil servant?" Li Zhiqiang, law lecturer at Lanzhou University, said.

Other internet users were more complimentary, however. Tencent Weibo user Yufan from Chongqing wrote: "I don't know if he has actually taken any bribes. All I know is I like his calm face. It's quite okay."

CLICKABLE

Bo Xilai

Former Communist Party chief of Chongqing and Politburo member

Mr Bo, the son of a famous Communist Party hero, was once a political high-flyer and described as the nearest China had to a Western-style politician. He ran the coastal city of Dalian and was commerce minister before becoming Party chief of south-western metropolis of Chongqing. He was removed from office following Neil Heywood’s death and was charged with bribery, corruption and abuse of power.

Gu Kailai

Lawyer and wife of Bo Xilai

Ms Gu, whose father was a prominent revolutionary general, is a well-known lawyer and second wife of Bo Xilai.

She studied at Peking University before opening the Kailai law firm in Beijing. Fluent in English, she and her husband were once one of China's most powerful couples. Last year, she was convicted of Mr Heywood's murder, reportedly over a deal gone wrong, and given a suspended death sentence.

Bo Guagua

Son of Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai

Educated at the exclusive British private school Harrow, followed by Oxford and Harvard Universities, Bo Guagua has been described as one of China's "princelings" - the descendants of revolutionary leaders often criticised for their lavish lifestyles. Since his parents’ fall, Bo Guagua has remained in the US, where he is preparing to study law at Colombia University in New York. In a statement issued ahead of Mr Bo’s trial, Bo Guagua said he hoped his father would be allowed to defend himself "without constraints".

Wang Lijun

Former Chongqing police chief

Mr Wang, once a popular police chief and Bo Xilai’s deputy in Chongqing, began his career in law enforcement in the Inner Mongolia region before moving to Chongqing in 2008. He worked closely with Mr Bo but, after an apparent falling out, Mr Wang fled to the US consulate in Chengdu, near Chongqing, where he raised concerns about the circumstances of Neil Heywood’s death. Mr Wang has since been jailed for 15 years, charged with defection, power abuse and bribe-taking.

Patrick Devillers

French architect

Mr Devillers is believed to have met Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai in the 1990s while living in Dalian and reportedly helped design street grids in the port city while Mr Bo was mayor. French documents quoted by the Wall Street Journal and New York Times said he also oversaw the running of a villa in the South of France - allegedly belonging to Mr Bo - between 2001 to 2007. He was detained in Cambodia, where he lives, before voluntarily flying to China in July 2012. Reports say Chinese authorities wanted to talk to him as a witness in the Neil Heywood case.

Jiang Feng Dolby

Television presenter and business woman

Mrs Dolby, born in China but now a British citizen through marriage, is well known in China as a state TV presenter. However, after moving to Britain she ran an educational consulting company, which it is claimed helped get the children of wealthy Chinese couples into leading British and American schools and universities. Mrs Dolby was named in official documents quoted by the Wall Street Journal as the manager of a villa in the south of France that is expected to be one of the key pieces of evidence at Mr Bo's trial.

Dalian

Major seaport in north-eastern China

It was here that Bo Xilai's political career was set on the fast track when he was appointed mayor. Mr Bo was credited with developing Dalian from an unremarkable port city to a showcase for China's economic boom. It was also in Dalian that Mr Bo and Gu Kailai reportedly first met Mr Heywood and Mr Devillers.

Chongqing

Major city in south-western China

Bo Xilai was appointed Communist Party chief of Chongqing in 2007. Wang Lijun, the city’s former police chief, was his deputy. Mr Bo became well-known for a high-profile crackdown on crime and advancing the "Chongqing model" of development, which spent heavily on developing public housing and infrastructure. However, his ambition and flamboyant style earned him enemies and raised eyebrows among party leaders back in Beijing. It was in a hotel room in Chongqing that British businessman Neil Heywood was found dead in November 2011.

French villa

Cannes, France

A six-bedroom villa in the south of France is expected to play a role in the trial of Bo Xilai. The $3.5m (£2.2m) property in Cannes was allegedly given to Mr Bo as a bribe. It it claimed to have been bought by Xu Ming, a billionaire backer of Mr Bo in Dalian. French documents quoted by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times state people close to the Bo family have been involved with the villa since 2001. French architect Patrick Devillers, British businessman Neil Heywood and Feng Jiang Dolby, a former presenter on China's state TV, have all overseen the running of the property, the papers said.

Neil Heywood

British businessman

Having enjoyed a privileged education at Harrow school, Mr Heywood moved to China in the early 1990s where he learned Mandarin, married his Chinese wife Wang Lulu and started a business career. The father-of-two worked as a consultant to foreign businesses seeking investment in China. It was while living in the north-eastern port city of Dalian in the mid-1990s that Mr Heywood met Bo Xilai - then the city’s mayor - and his wife Gu Kailai. More than a decade later, Mr Heywood was found dead in a hotel room in the south-western city Chongqing - where Mr Bo had since become Communist Party chief. In 2012, Gu Kailai and an aide were convicted of poisoning him because of "economic conflict".

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