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China's Communist Party had hoped a high profile corruption trial this week would send a message that the party punishes its own and operates under the rule of law. But so far, the trail of former Politburo member Bo Xilai hasn't quite worked out that way. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on how China's biggest case in decades is toying with the expectations of the millions of people following the trial.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: When top officials to on trial here, they follow the same old script. They admit their crimes, apologize and humbly accept punishment. Bo Xilai, the charismatic former party boss of China's biggest city, Chongqing, did none of that. Yesterday, the trial's opening day, he denied doing anything wrong and picked apart some of the charges against him. Gong, a Beijing writer who followed the case by reading online transcripts, was impressed.
GONG: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: Based on yesterday's observation, I think many people have reached a consensus that Bo Xilai was the biggest winner, he says. Bo cross-examined a tycoon named Xu Ming, who claimed to have bribed him. But under repeated questioning, Xu admitted he'd never given any money directly to Bo. Gong thought that was pretty good.
GONG: (Through translator) Everyone saw Bo using his strong logic to imply the evidence provided by the prosecutor was simply indefensible. Public opinion has turned to support Bo and become sympathetic to him.
RACHEL LU: I'm Rachel Lu. I'm editor and co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation.
LANGFITT: Tea Leaf is an Internet magazine that follows China's social media. Lu says reactions like Gong's were fairly typical.
LU: So there are actually a lot of people who said, hey, I thought Bo Xilai was this ruthless guy who did all these really bad things. But now, I see that he's actually seemed to be a good lawyer for himself, and a lot of people have become his, quote and unquote, "fans" at least as far as this trial is concerned.
LANGFITT: For the record, Bo is widely seen as having run Chongqing as a brutal fiefdom. The local police department is accused of engaging in routine torture. After Bo's deft courtroom work yesterday, some of China's state-run media savaged him. Again, Rachel Lu.
LU: The official government mouthpieces put out these articles basically saying Bo Xilai is, you know, a liar. He's, you know, trying to mislead the public. So I think maybe the party was caught off guard a little bit by his performance.
LANGFITT: Bo did not fare as well today. He seemed to speak less. Some of the witness testimony began to mount. In a video, his wife, Gu Kailai, who was convicted of murdering a British businessman, said Bo knew of illegal gifts the family had received from that tycoon, Xu Ming.
GU KAILAI: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: For example, buying plane tickets, booking international flights and reserving seats, Xu had agencies that specialized in that, she said. But many people noted that the value of the alleged graft is pocket change by Chinese corruption standards. They saw the trial as the result of a power struggle between Bo and leaders in Beijing. A woman named Lin, who followed the trial online from central China's Hubei province, put it like this.
LIN: (Through translator) The real issue is not about corruption and taking bribes. The entire case absolutely will not be a victory of the rule of law. It's simply a victory of power.
LANGFITT: The trial resumes tomorrow. Bo is almost certain to be convicted, as is nearly every defendant who enters a Chinese court. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.