Trial Starts for Former Chinese Political Leader Bo Xilai

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World", a co-production of the BBC, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. He was once a political star, his father a compatriot of Mao Zedong and he, a Chinese princeling, was headed for China's inner circle of power. Then more than a year ago Bo Xilai took a big fall. His wife was convicted of the murder of a British businessman. Bo himself was charged with bribery, embezzlement and corruption. Today, Bo took the stand to defend himself in what many call "a show trial". Barbara Demick is the China Bureau Chief for the LA Times and she has been reporting from Jinan where Bo's trial is taking place.

Barbara Demick: We haven't seen him at all for almost a year and a half, since he was purged. So today was a very big day that the court in Jinan set up essentially a Twitter-like feed and they've been releasing still photographs and transcripts and we saw him looking really quite good in court – clean shaven, wearing a white shirt, very shiny black shoes, and mounting his own defense, at least according to the transcripts.

Werman: When you say he's mounting his own defense, he's acting as his lawyer on his own behalf?

Demick: He has two government-appointment lawyers, but he seems to be taking things under hand and there was only one live witness today and Bo himself conducted the cross examination rather well it seems.

Werman: Were you surprised by anything coming out of the courtroom today?

Demick: It still seems to be something of a show trial, just a better show than the other trials.

Werman: So you do believe that it's a show trial?

Demick: I may be more cynical than some, but I believe that there was a deal made in advance where he would be allowed to defend himself against the more serious charges, probably take a fall on the more minor charges, and in a way it's a very clever arrangement for the Chinese Communist Party 'cuz it makes it look like a better trial. If you read the transcripts that have come out today, Bo has challenged the charges against him, but he has not challenged the process itself. He said he's been well-treated by the Communist Party's disciplinary commission, he praised the judge. And so he's in a way endorsing the legal system in China under the Communist Party while defending himself, and I personally believe that the deal.

Werman: What does he gain by defending himself?

Demick: He may end up with a smaller sentence and his family will be protected. This is a very powerful family. He has siblings in business with a lot at stake, he has a son attending Colombia University and that son needs to be protected, and he won't go down in utter disgrace.

Werman: Barbara, outside the courtroom seems almost as compelling, maybe even more compelling, than inside the courtroom. Many people apparently have flooded the city of Jinan to protest outside the courtroom. What are they protesting? What have they told you?

Demick: It's a mixed bag of grievances. There are people who have come because they support Bo, there are people who have come because they want to see China follow a rule of law, and there are people who have come just because they have grievances with the Chinese Communist Party. There was one man who is showing us photographs of his demolished house and he climbed up on a wall across the street from the courthouse and took off his pants. He was still wearing his underwear and all the television cameras were rolling and it was quite amusing. The police were trying to coax him down without creating a scene that would attract more media interest. But essentially people have come out because the foreign media are here in Jinan and they want to voice their opinions and their grievances and so the trial has become a bit of a circus at least from the outside.

Werman: Barbara Demick with the Los Angeles Times in Jinan, China, where former Communist Party leader Bo Xilai is on trial. Barbara, thank you very much.

Demick: Thank you.