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How Social Media Could Save Disgraced Chinese Politician Bo Xilai

BY Rebecca Chao | Friday, August 23 2013

A CCTV image of the Bo Xilai trial provided by 886 Happy Radio (快乐886电台) via Weibo

In an unprecedented move, the Chinese government is providing an official live feed of the corruption trial of disgraced politician Bo Xilai. They are streaming it via Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter and a search of his name (薄熙来) turns up nearly 1.5 million posts. Past trials have been closed affairs and what information is revealed after they conclude tend to be the carefully orchestrated portions of the trial.

“There’s never been anything like this before,” Li Yonggang, an expert on the Internet and Chinese society at Nanjing University in eastern China, told The New York Times.

Edward Wong, The New York Times Beijng correspondent, tweeted yesterday, “Testimony we’re allowed to see in Bo Xilai trial is much more compelling and detailed than expected. Still this is not an open trial, and the Communist Party remains final arbiter. How will it play out tomorrow?”

In China, there is no separation of powers so courts have no real independence from the law-makers and the Communist Party. Even though China's leaders will make the final decision on the case and it will most certainly end in a guilty verdict – around 98 percent of cases end in conviction – the government may also be engaging in a bit of monitored crowdsourcing to ensure it reaches a healthy, publicly satisfying sentence.

Bo’s trial is particularly tricky for the Communist Party and gauging public sentiment might help officials find the right balance between severity and leniency in sentencing Bo. While the Communist Party wants to portray Bo as corrupt, and use his trial as an example of making good on promises of fighting anti-corruption, the Party does not want to dampen public regard for Bo’s pro-Maoist policies, which still receive broad support among the Chinese.

As such, Bo, 64, remains a popular politician who still has a strong supporter base because of his populist pro-Mao rhetoric and ironically, anti-corruption agenda.

Bo was a former mayor of Chongqing and once a darling of the Communist Party. He plummeted from power in February 2012 when his second-in-command, Chongqing’s police chief Wan Lijun, fled to the U.S. consulate with incriminating evidence against Bo. His wife, Gu Kailai, was recently charged with murdering English businessman Neil Heywood.

According to the indictment posted on court’s live food, Bo is on trial today for accepting bribes – or through his wife or son – totaling 21.8 million yuan ($3.56 million) from the heads of two companies, Dalian International Development and Dalian Shide Group between 2000 and 2012.

The online response to Bo's trial is decidedly mixed but some have actually softened their views on the disgraced politician.

Tea Leaf Nation reported that one Weibo user wrote, “So far, the material presented by the prosecutors do not seem to prove Bo’s guilt. Instead, Bo and his defense attorneys are quick on their feet, have airtight logic and are able to rebut each allegation on the facts.”

The New York Times reports,

Many shared a belief that the 27 million renminbi, or $4.4 million, he is reported to have taken through bribes and embezzlement would count as mere pocket money for many, more corrupt, officials.

“Old Bo took just over 20 million yuan,” or less than $3.3 million, wrote one Weibo user. “A dinky little village party secretary could get more than him. It’s just a case of winner takes all, the fate that comes from political defeat.”

[…]

Even citizens who want to see Mr. Bo convicted voiced doubt that his misdeeds outdid those of other officials. “Bo should be punished by the law,” said one Weibo user. “But I hope that all criminal officials will be punished. That’s the heartfelt wish of ordinary people.”

The online display of sympathy for Bo could result in a less severe sentence.

As I previously noted in TechPresident, judicial decisions can be modified by public opinion. Officials are quickly let go without so much as a trial after being exposed online. Wealthy Chinese refer to rich lists, such as those created by Forbes and Hurun, as “'kill pig lists'” because the publicity of their wealth often leads to public outcry, online vigilantism and then ultimately, their downfall. Last year, 31-year-old Wu Ying was sentenced to death for illegally raising 750 million yuan ($122.5 million). But after a public outcry over the severity of the sentence, the court dropped the death penalty.

This “Trial by Weibo” is not a Chinese phenomenon. As The New Yorker’s Ariel Levy wrote, in “ Trial by Twitter,” online vigilantism has often resulted in a degradation of the presumption of innocence before and during trial in the United States.

Levy wrote, "The Internet is uniquely qualified as a venue for public shaming; it is a town square big enough to put all the world’s sinners in the stocks…By the logic of vigilantism, the need for justice supersedes the rules of a creaky bureaucracy. But that assumes that the accusations are correct.” He also noted that during the Boston Marathon bombing, Reddit users quickly pinned the crime to Sunil Tripathi, a twenty-two-year-old Brown University student who had gone missing for about a month. The accusations led to mass harassment by both social media and traditional media of Tripathi’s family. Sunil’s body was soon found floating in a river in Providence.

In China, the sway of public sentiment is even greater, due to lack of an independent justice system, and especially at a time when the Chinese government has promised to tackle corruption among both its “flies and tigers,” or low and high level bureaucrats. Bo’s trail is slated to continue through the weekend and while it may be weeks before a verdict is released, public sentiment could swing a bit in Bo’s favor.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.