“Openness” and “transparency” at Bo Xilai trial – A PR stunt

Prominent-turned-disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai’s exposure as a corrupt government official and husband-of-murderer cast a shadow on Chinese politics. In a quick one-day trial last year, Bo’s Wife Gu Kailai was given a suspended death sentence for murdering the English businessman Neil Heywood. Bo Xilai is on trial this week and is accused of several counts of corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power for concealing his wife’s guilt in the Heywood murder case. The trial of the century has been widely reported around the world, as it is the first time in history that a government official of such high ranking is prosecuted in China.

The government has taken Bo’s trial as an opportunity to seek legitimacy from the Chinese population. Yesterday’s editorial from the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece, praised the government’s openness in showcasing the trial. For the first time a trial has been live on the Chinese microblogging service Weibo, and according to the editorial, “this degree of transparency has not happened before.”

The Chinese authorities have for the last few years struggled to keep up its popularity among its Internet users, who use Weibo to criticize the government for everything, including high real estate prices, Internet censorship, pollution, poisonous food and corruption. The government hopes that the image of an open trial, especially one of such high profile, will convince these angry Weibo users that the CCP is a legitimate entity that prioritizes the well being of its citizens.

“The most important thing now is to have a fair trial for Bo’s case, which will naturally boost the public’s confidence”, the Global Times editorial stated. “We have seen a very good opening of this trial, with widespread applause and support from various walks of life.”

Transparency? Really?

Whereas the government has been relatively open in publishing information regarding the Bo Xilai trial, the verdict has most likely been predetermined as guilty. In the soap-like trial filled with murder, large-scale embezzlement, extra-marital affairs and breach of trust, it seems that the government is letting Bo vigorously defend his innocence – to prove that China is a fair country where the rule of law prevails. It reminds me of Russia’s decision to release the corruption fighter Alex Navalny from prison, only to (most probably) lock him up again in the next few months.

There are flaws with the official claim that Bo’s trial is ”open and transparent”. Like many others, I am surprised that the transcripts are available online, but it all seems to be a government PR stunt. The transcripts and “live” messages coming out of the court have probably been edited, and since no foreign media was allowed to attend the trial, who knows what actually was said in there.

Censorship regarding Bo Xilai has been heavy on Weibo, as negative commentary or critical discussions can barely be seen. A large part the comments on Weibo are praising government work, and only if you go on the www.freeweibo.com that displays censored posts do you see negative commentary. For instance, the last official Weibo message announcing that the court was dismissed yesterday got only positive commentary, mostly praising the court for working hard (辛苦了!). Is it realistic that a high profile case such as this one attracts no negative comments?

For me, the Chinese government cannot be trusted, and no matter how much the current administration flaunts its supposed “openness” and “transparency”, I’ll barely believe a word of it. After all the government scandals this year, with corruption, food poisoning, and ridiculous new laws, it is apparent that the CCP is facing immense difficulties in tackling the country’s problems, and only has its survival, not the well being of the people, in mind. When a new administration with no ties with the current regime steps in and implements reforms, will I consider believing in changes.

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