Microblogging the Bo Xilai trial: Transparency or theatre?

A journalist takes photos of a microblog by Jinan Intermediate People's Court on 22 August 2013
Image caption The Jinan court microblog is posting trial updates of proceedings

In a rare display of openness, a Chinese court issued almost real-time posts on social media during the trial of Bo Xilai, attracting immense public attention.

The Jinan Intermediate People's Court set up an account on Sina Weibo, China's equivalent to Twitter, just days before the trial of the disgraced politician was due to begin.

The event was widely expected to be a well-scripted show trial. But on Thursday, those following developments on Weibo were surprised to see the court disseminating detailed accounts of the lively exchanges between the judge, the prosecutor, the defence lawyer, witnesses and Mr Bo himself.

The posts showed Mr Bo putting up a feisty defence, overturning his confessions and denying all corruption charges against him.

This appeared to be an unusual attempt by the Chinese leadership to show its people that the trial is open and fair.

The openness was, of course, very limited. Foreign media were not allowed to attend the trial and the information disclosed by the court was likely to have been heavily edited.

But it was still an unprecedented display of transparency for a trial in China, and therefore drew massive attention from the Chinese public.

"Historic progress"

As the day progressed, followers of the court's Weibo account increased from 40,000 to over 300,000. Some posts were retweeted tens of thousands of times.

Many Chinese netizens hailed the court's posts as a sign of progress.

"The openness shown by the Bo Xilai trial at the Jinan court has exceeded public expectations," said Weibo user "Sanyan Dadi", whose verified account describes him as a Liaoning-based journalist.

"The real-time Weibo broadcast by the Jinan court is a historic progress. It would be better if it could be used in ordinary cases, too," said Tang Xiaohu, a Hunan-based lawyer.

This seems to be exactly the kind of message Beijing intended to get across.

Image caption Bo Xilai's courtroom denial of bribery won him some fans on Weibo

"The open trial and the real-time Weibo broadcasts reflected the transparency and openness of China's rule of law," said a commentary on the website of People's Daily, the Communist Party's most authoritative mouthpiece.

But not everyone is so optimistic about what this means for rule of law in China.

Zhang Zhi'an, a journalism professor at Sun Yet-sen University in Guangzhou, pointed out that the court's posts were selective and not genuinely real-time.

"By adopting this method of dissemination, [the authorities] have managed to balance openness with control," he said on his Weibo microblog.

"They have mounted a display of openness while keeping risks under control in a highly skilful manner," he wrote.

Liu Wanqiang, a Guangxi-based journalist for the semi-official China News Service, said: "The selective postings can only show selective openness and selective justice, and cannot be said to represent the truth."

Off the script?

The court's Weibo posts might have been edited by the authorities before release, but judging from netizens' reactions, it is not clear if all potential risks have indeed been kept under control.

Bo Xilai's defiance made great courtroom drama and won him some admiration among Weibo users.

One user called his performance "vigorous and spectacular".

After Mr Bo denied the charges and aggressively challenged the prosecution's evidence and witnesses, some were led to question the whole case against him.

"What a huge twist! It would be very hard to find him guilty now," said a Weibo post translated by the Tea Leaf Nation blog.

In a sign that Beijing is not entirely comfortable with the consequences of its self-imposed openness, party paper Guangming Daily ran an article on its website warning Mr Bo not to take advantage of the legal rights honoured by the court.

"The court safeguards the defendant's legal rights in order to safeguard the paramount dignity of the law. But this cannot be used by criminals as an opportunity to wreak havoc, confuse right with wrong, whitewash themselves and show contempt for the law," said the article.

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