Bo Xilai, the disgraced former rising star of the Chinese Communist Party, came out fighting on the first day of his trial in the eastern city of Jinan, saying he had been framed on graft charges and forced to confess during interrogation.
Making his first public appearance since April last year, the 64-year-old former party boss of the industrial south-western city of Chongqing denied allegations that he took nearly 27m yuan (£2.8m) in illegal payments from two prominent businessmen, Xu Ming and Tang Xiaolin. Mr Bo, who is also accused of corruption and abuse of power, rubbished testimony from witnesses, including statements from his wife, Gu Kailai.
The court also said Ms Gu, who was convicted of the November 2011 murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, and their son, Bo Guagua, who is studying law at Columbia University in the US, had received bribes. It was the first time that authorities had named the younger Bo in the case against his father.
Analysts had expected the trial to be a smooth, quick affair with the verdict – which many believe to be already determined as guilty – coming within hours. Few had anticipated that Mr Bo would claim he was pressured into confessing to the bribery charges and attack those testifying, including Tang Xiaolin, whom he described as a “mad dog” whose evidence was “blasphemous … the ugly performance of a person selling his soul.”
“Regarding the matter of Tang Xiaolin giving me money three times, I once admitted it against my will under great pressure during the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection’s investigation against me,” Mr Bo told the court. “I am willing to bear the legal responsibilities, but at that time I did not know the circumstances of these matters, my mind was a blank.”
During his time as party boss in Chongqing, Mr Bo pursued a series of social programmes which were seen as harking back to the era of Mao Zedong, putting him on a collision course with the more capitalist, reformist approach espoused by the Beijing leadership.
The decision to strip Mr Bo of his offices last year – following the revelations about his wife’s connection to Mr Heywood’s death – has exposed rifts within the ruling party as well as Chinese society, and his trial marks the biggest political scandal since the 1976 downfall of the Gang of Four at the end of the Cultural Revolution. President Xi Jinping is keen to underline support for his economic reforms, and the leadership will want to limit any fallout from this scandal by finishing the trial as quickly as possible.
Mr Bo is also accused of embezzling 5m yuan (£520,000) from a government project in the north-eastern city of Dalian, where he served as mayor, the court said.
His wife, Gu Kailai, who was given a suspended death sentence for poisoning Mr Heywood over a business dispute, and who is widely believed to have made a deal with investigators to protect the couple’s son, testified that the bribe money went towards the younger Bo’s education at Harrow and Oxford, and other expenses in Britain. Mr Bo described her testimony as “absurd” and “laughable”.
Wearing a white, open-necked shirt, he looked considerably healthier than Ms Gu had during her trial last year. Court spokesman Liu Yanjie described Mr Bo as “emotionally stable and physically healthy” during the trial. But his signature swagger had gone.
Mr Bo’s former police chief in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, has also been jailed for trying to cover up the murder of Mr Heywood.
Xu Ming, the billionaire former chairman of the building materials firm Dalian Shide Group, appeared as a witness against Mr Bo. He was taken into custody after the Bo Xilai scandal broke. No charges have been brought against him, though he remains in detention. In court, he said he paid $3.2m for a villa on the French Riviera for Ms Gu’s use, as well as Bo family trips to Africa, and expenses for Bo Guagua. According to Mr Xu and prosecutors, Mr Bo helped him on business deals, including the purchase of a football team in Dalian in 2000.
Countering Mr Xu’s testimony, Mr Bo said he was unaware of any payments by Mr Xu to help Bo Guagua. He said he knew nothing of his wife’s business dealings and had relatively little to do with her after 2007 when they moved to Chongqing. “All I can say is Gu Kailai had mentioned that Xu Ming was nice to Guagua,” Mr Bo said.
Some observers speculated that the lively court action was aimed at showing that Mr Bo was getting a fair trial, but that the background was that he had struck a deal in exchange for a pre-arranged sentence. The trial is due to end today and the verdict is likely to be announced in early September, according to state broadcaster CCTV.