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In China, a Show Trial Without the Show

BEIJING—Back when disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai still ruled Chongqing, he took a special interest in the optics of trials. Before his sudden fall from grace this spring, he was, after all, famous for his dramatic flair—and his most artful turn as politician-cum-showman was the aggressively publicized way in which he cracked down on organized crime, and potential threats to his personal authority. (It was known as the “smashing the black” plank of his “Chongqing model” of governance.)

One October morning in 2009, for instance, 31 accused mob bosses were paraded into a Chongqing courtroom, each already garbed in orange prison jumpsuits. Six received death sentences and the others long jail terms. The city’s state-run press carried photos of the 31, mostly with their heads hung down, chins pressed to collar bones, taken by well placed court photographers. The media depicted Bo as a heroic legal enforcer.

Of course, that was then. Now the optics of crime and punishment are well out of Bo’s hands. And for the sake of the Party, if not Bo personally, the legal system's public spotlight is being directed in every direction but at him.

On Thursday, Bo’s wife, the retired lawyer Gu Kailai, was tried in the city of Hefei for the murder of Neil Heywood. The story of the British businessman’s demise in a Chongqing hotel room, later attributed to cyanide poisoning, was first aired in March on the expat blog Seagull Reference, before being picked up by the Wall Street Journal and other foreign press. After a period of hesitation, the Chinese press picked up the story, emphasizing allegations that Gu was directly to blame for murdering the foreigner. As yet, no concrete evidence has been made available for public scrutiny. Meanwhile Bo is unlikely to be tried for murder, economic crimes, or corruption in any court of law, but rather tried in secret for unspecified Party disciplinary infractions; his present whereabouts remain unknown.

But Gu’s trial has hardly provided much bonafide theater. On Thursday, a gaggle of reporters waited in heavy rain outside a cordoned-off granite courthouse in the city of Hefei, where the trial was held. In the afternoon, a brief press conference was convened. Tang Yigan, vice president and spokesman of Hefei Intermediate People's Court, announced: “The trial finished this afternoon and the court adjourned. During the trial Kailai was in good shape and mentally stable.” Tang said she did not protest charges any of the charges against her. “The court will, during the adjournment, seriously and thoroughly consider the evidence, take into consideration the arguments of both sides, and according to facts and the law ... the trial committee will announce the verdict after discussion.” Then he turned and walked back inside. 

A CCTV news video released online later featured a presenter reading perfunctory wire copy while a few images of the trial were shown in the background: Gu, her face slightly chubbier than before, in a black business suit. Various Chinese court attendants looking bored. Two British diplomats straining to listen closely. But no substantive details or live reels from the trial were aired. 

“If this is a show trial, we aren’t getting any of the show,” says Alexander Cook, an assistant professor at University of California, Berkley, who is working on a book about China’s most famous twentieth century show trial, that of the Gang of Four, when the main architects of the Cultural Revolution—including Mao Zedong’s wife as a stand-in for the deceased Great Helmsman—stood trial in spectacular fashion for a full month in 1980. A lengthy indictment was published in newspapers, cataloguing the various “counterrevolutionary crimes.” The live audience inside the courtroom numbered several hundred. Each day, a highlight reel of trial proceedings was aired on the nightly news. “It was saturation coverage,” Cook explains. “But I guess one thing they learned: when you run a show, not everyone is going to be cooperative. There’s a risk of something backfiring.”

That’s especially so today, when the Chinese public is much more critical, especially on social-media platforms like Weibo, and in response the Party’s messaging system is more circumspect. As Chinese media expert and founder Jeremy Goldkorn reminded me, “There was literally no such thing as social media or passably critical media in 1980—so whether the trial was open or not, it almost didn’t matter.”  No wonder then that today’s Gu Kailai trial was so perfunctory, with coverage allowed of the fact of the trial, but hardly of the trial itself.

Of course, what's still to be determined is whether China's high-profile trials can still succeed in serving as a willful distraction or distortion from other political controversies. “It’s always about ‘don’t look here, look over there,’” as China-based author and analyst Paul French told me. And one long-standing trope that has traditionally been deployed to that end in China is the blame-the-woman syndrome: a disturbing pattern in which wives of disgraced emperors or politicians have been depicted as corrupt powers behind the throne, and frequently the reasons for dynastic downfall. 

In the 2009 Chongqing mob trials, for example, one arch villain, and focus of press accounts, was Xie Caiping, the sister-in-law of the city’s then-deputy police chief. Dubbed the “godmother” of the city’s underworld, she was convicted of sheltering 30 illegal gambling halls, and a bit of color (not illegal, but tantalizing) was frequently mentioned: she reportedly had 16 younger lovers. It made an irresistible, salacious story for the press—and as it turns out, an exquisite diversion from everything else Bo was up to at the time, some of which eventually spilled out: from his condoning the use of torture to extract “confessions” from political enemies to his reported scheming with former police chief Wang Lijun to wire-tap senior Politburo officials, including President Hu Jintao. 

Contemporary media portraits of Gu similarly tend to present her as another Dragon Lady, demon temptress, whose penchant for power and spiral descent into craven paranoia poisoned the promising career of her ambitious husband. One might infer the government also hopes the public will assume Bo’s fall is not a sign of endemic rot within the system, but rather a cautionary moral tale of a man led astray by a conniving woman. “Gu Kailai is certainly not the main show,” French adds. “The main long-term show is the infighting within the Communist party.”

Christina Larson is a writer in Beijing and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy.