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At Bo Xilai trial, plan for a comeback?

Former top politician Bo Xilai of China has used his charismatic personality to defend himself at his corruption trial, perhaps laying the groundwork for a comeback.

Associated Press

Former top politician Bo Xilai of China has used his charismatic personality to defend himself at his corruption trial, perhaps laying the groundwork for a comeback.

BEIJING — For a man toppled from power, purged from China's ruling Communist Party and almost certain to spend much of the next decade in prison, disgraced official Bo Xilai is certainly not behaving like someone whose political life is over.

For the past week, in at times spectacular fashion, Bo has funneled the full force of his charismatic personality into defending himself at his trial in the city of Jinan. His effectiveness at preserving his image as a maverick populist leader — and the fact that party leaders have allowed that to happen — has surprised many observers in China and may be laying the groundwork for a political rehabilitation many years from now.

The history of the Communist Party in China offers almost as many examples of political comebacks as it does high-profile purges like the one that befell Bo.

Bo's father was purged and imprisoned, only to re-emerge as a powerful party elder in the 1980s and '90s. And China's current president, Xi Jinping, watched his father fall from grace and return to set the stage for his son's rise to the pinnacle of China's political hierarchy.

Bo was ousted as party chief in the southwestern megacity of Chongqing last year after his police chief implicated Bo's wife in the death of a British businessman, triggering the party's biggest crisis in decades.

Whether he or any other deposed party leader could pull off a comeback in the modern era remains unclear. Many analysts consider it unlikely that he could regain his former high position in the party, but it is thought possible he could at least preserve his political legacy and thus some connection to party power.

His performance thus far — at a trial many thought would serve as his political eulogy — is only helping those odds, analysts say.

"The trial is Bo's last chance, and he's making full use of it to project an indomitable and unyielding personality and to defend his image," said Li Weidong, former editor of China Reform magazine. "Even though he will go to prison without a doubt, he wants to depart as the standard bearer of his cause."

As the trial stretched into a third day Saturday, Bo admitted in court that he had made mistakes that shamed his country and said he reacted poorly when his police chief told him his wife had committed murder. But he denied he was guilty of any crimes.

Bo became a rising party star in part because of his shrewdly cultivated appeal to popular sentiment. Even as he made use of the party's traditional route to power through backroom deals and patronage, he launched leftist, Maoist-style campaigns that garnered him a large and loyal grass-roots following.

His spirited responses and showmanlike tactics at his trial this past week appear to have the same goal.

Many of those the party targets for punishment cooperate quietly in their scripted trials. But Bo appears to have leveraged his remaining support among powerful party allies to strike a deal that has allowed his trial to be publicized through online posts on China's social media.

In transcripts, photos and videos uploaded by state media and court authorities, Bo has come off as both comfortable and sharp as he confronts his accusers.

In one particularly riveting exchange on the trial's first day, he cross-examined a billionaire who had testified about gifts and bribes he allegedly lavished on Bo and his family. Bo picked him apart with a barrage of more than 20 questions.

"You said you supported Bo Guagua (Bo's son), and you covered his expenses for airline tickets, credit cards and an electric vehicle. Have you ever told me that?" Bo asked.

"No," Xu Ming said.

"Have you ever told me about Africa, that you covered their expenses?"

"No."

"Thank you for being truthful. You bought Gu Kailai (Bo's wife) expensive items. You bought Bo Guagua luxury watches. And have you ever told me that?"

"No."

Nevertheless, the authorities appear to be trying to gradually guide public opinion toward certainty — and condemnation — of Bo's guilt.

Editorials and commentaries denouncing Bo and deriding his defense tactics have been prominently placed in party-controlled media. The government's propaganda department has instructed Chinese media in recent days not to include "anything of benefit to Bo," according to the U.S.-based China Digital Media website.

And the court transcripts, which provide the public's only real window into the trial, have switched focus in the past two days from Bo's vigorous rebuttals of witnesses to evidence presented against him.

On Saturday, according to the latest transcripts, Bo's former police chief, Wang Lijun, accused Bo of covering up his wife's murder of British businessman Neil Heywood — a charge Bo denied.

Many in China, including bloggers, analysts and party journalists and officials, say they remain convinced that nothing Bo says will alter a guilty verdict probably determined in advance. But they are divided on what that would mean for Bo's future.

At Bo Xilai trial, plan for a comeback? 08/25/13 [Last modified: Sunday, August 25, 2013 12:05am]
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