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Bo Xilai: China trial frowns on rising leader known for charisma, popular style

The disgraced Chinese political star is on trial for accepting bribes, corruption, and abuse of power. While graft in China is not unusual, Bo Xilai's case is. 

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In this photo released by the Jinan Intermediate People's Court, Bo Xilai, center, stands on trial at the court in eastern China's Shandong province on Thursday.

Jinan Intermediate People's Court/AP

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The trial of fallen Chinese political star Bo Xilai – the most high profile leader to fall from power in years – opened with dramatic flair on Thursday, with Mr. Bo disavowing an earlier confession, calling one witness a “mad dog,” and scoffing at his own wife’s accusations against him. 

Bo, the charismatic former commerce minister, mayor, and governor who had higher ambition and a populist flair, is charged with graft, embezzlement, and abuse of power. Along with his plummet from politics, this is yet another warning that Bo's unusual stand- out personal style can be attacked and used against aspirant leaders in the People's Republic, even when they have been popular for years. 

“Other aspiring politicians and mayors should learn from his case that they should not spark resentment among officials,” says political historian Zhang Lifan. “Actually, Bo was good at using populism and the media but he was too aggressive and made all official circles concerned. They don’t want to see another political figure like Mao [Zedong].”

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Bo's career collapsed last year when he was serving as party boss in the western city of Chongqing and his wife was linked to the murder of a British business associate.

But the first day of Bo’s trial centered on allegations that, for more than a decade, he accepted bribes from wealthy businessmen and friends linked to his tenure here in the east coast city of Dalian when he was mayor and provincial governor.

Graft is common in China’s political structure. But Bo’s demise became inevitable after a police chief disclosed the murder in Chongqing. The case exposed wide rifts in the party hierarchy as China’s leadership entered a delicate transition phase earlier this year, a process in which many believed Bo would be elevated to a top central government post.

His downfall is likely to harden disdain in official China for charismatic leaders -- at least those not named Xi Jinping, China's current paramount leader, who has on occasion taken a charismatic or personal leadership approach, say China watchers. 

Bo’s drama was not broadcast on China’s state-run television from Jinan, the eastern city where the trial is being held. Instead, in a move that allowed authorities control over content, witness testimony and Bo’s indignant responses were posted at length on the court’s social media feed. The court’s hold on information coming out of the trial will protect official China should Bo veer off script, say analysts.

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A first

The trial began with the court reading charges against Bo, detailing accusations that Bo, his wife, Gu Kailai, and son illegally accepted 21.8 million yuan ($3.6 million) from two businessmen – Xu Ming, a Dalian plastics conglomerate mogul who has been in custody since last March, and Tang Xiaolin, head of Hong Kong-based export firm. As the day progressed, the court broadcast testimony of both men.

The testimony for the first time linked Bo’s 25-year-old son, now a law student at Columbia University in New York, to possible criminal activity. Mr. Xu, head of the Dalian Shide group, said he paid off $49,000 on a credit card in the son’s name and paid for the younger Bo and a friend to travel to Africa.

Before he was arrested, Bo angrily denied suggestions that his son’s expensive private schooling in the UK and US was funded through corruption money. Xu also said he spent more than $3 million to help Bo’s wife buy a villa in France.

According to the transcript, Bo denied taking the money, saying he knew nothing about the payments and had little contact with his wife since 2007. She was convicted of murdering Briton Neil Heywood and was given a suspended death sentence. Bo called his own wife’s testimony against him "very comical, laughable."

There is no clear indication of how long Bo’s trial will last or how heavily the transcripts have been edited. In two photos of Bo posted on the court's official social media site, there were clear signs of political theater, notably that the 6-foot-tall Bo, who was known as a looming figure, was flanked by two unusually large court officers who towered over him. 

Unlike the show trial of his wife, however, there will likely be no speculation over whether Bo was replaced with a body double. The photos and short video clip posted by the court were unmistakably Bo, lean and looking older than his last public appearance 18 months ago.

Erased? 

In Dalian, though Bo’s name has been scrubbed from official exhibits and museums, his reputation as a captivating leader remains intact. The former mayor is still widely well regarded as the man who made Dalian beautiful, full of trees, parks, modern buildings and boulevards. Any residual resentment over corruption or misdeeds committed by Bo as mayor seems to be hidden or faded with time. 

Outside the municipal government office where he served as mayor more than a decade ago, several passersby asked about the charges related to Dalian defended Bo.

“Bo was known as a good leader in Dalian. He must [have] done something worse in Chongqing,” says Li Kang, a local retiree.

The trial will resume tomorrow, although most observers believe Bo and his political foes have already agreed on a verdict and sentence, a likely scenario is such a high-stakes case.


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