JINAN, China – Outside the courthouse where fallen political juggernaut Bo Xilai is about to stand trial, a woman pumped her fist, declared him a champion of ordinary folks and shouted that punishing him will turn the world upside down. Another woman rode up on a bicycle topped with a pink umbrella and yelled, "Give me justice!" But she wasn't talking about Bo at all.
China's most anticipated trial in years begins here Thursday when Bo, former Communist Party leader in the megacity of Chongqing, faces charges of corruption and abuse of power. But on Wednesday the venue presented a rare opportunity for a few dozen people, fans of the fallen politician and government critics alike, to let off steam in front of a gaggle of international reporters.
Police, usually keen to clamp down on any sign of public dissent, mostly left the protesters alone. By the afternoon they were stretching police tape across trees near the court entrance and setting up plastic road dividers along the curb.
Bo was a media-savvy politician who rose to great power as he championed populist policies and tapped into nostalgic feelings by encouraging the singing of old communist anthems. He fell from grace last year after his police chief made an embarrassing flight to a U.S. consulate with revelations that Bo's wife had murdered a British businessman.
Bo has not been seen publicly or by his family for a year and a half, but even now he enjoys some residual popularity.
"He did real work for the ordinary people," a woman in a blue dress said outside the marble-clad courthouse. She would give only her surname, Li.
A retired office worker who traveled from Beijing to attend the proceedings, Li said she was a fan of sing-alongs of old communist songs, but she faulted the Communist Party for high housing prices and unaffordable medical care.
"Where will the people's cries be heard? How can the people live in this society?" she said. "People believe that Bo Xilai is a good cadre and a good leader. If he should fall, this society's black and white has completely been reversed."
Bo's Communist revival efforts had alarmed the elite in China's previous administration who were wary of the violent excesses of the Mao Zedong's radical era and of any one politician gaining prominence. However, China's new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, installed last fall, appears keen to use some of Mao's tactics, including an ideological campaign urging cadres to purify themselves of corruption and bind more closely to the masses.
The trial is widely expected to be a brief proceeding with a conviction virtually assured. There had been speculation that part of the trial might be held in secret ahead of the announced opening day, but there were little signs of any proceedings outside the courthouse Wednesday. Calls to Bo's lawyers rang unanswered.
A migrant worker in a white polo shirt was among those angry about the prosecution. He refused to give his name but said he traveled from his native Anhui province to show his admiration for the way Bo fought for laborers' wages in Chongqing.
"This trial is illegal. We will not acknowledge any verdict whatsoever," the bespectacled man said. "I live at society's lowest level, but I have a Chinese person's conscience."
Zhu Zhiyong, a judge from Yunnan county who was on holiday in Jinan, spoke out in defense of Chinese legal system as he stood outside the courthouse to read a notice about Bo's trial.
"Only the courts can define the crimes of suspects. No other organizations can judge whether someone is guilty or no," Zhu said. "I don't think what some people are saying is true, that this trial is only a formality."
Uniformed police officers stood on either side of the courthouse's main gate and on nearby street corners. Journalists gathered across a narrow two-lane street to photograph the building, as did curious onlookers, some of whom lugged folding chairs and babies in strollers.
The trial also drew people with grievances unrelated to the case. Jinan resident Chen Sixue rode to the courthouse in a yellow bicycle with a pink umbrella attachment, and later strode to the courthouse entrance, where she draped a long sheet of printed paper over her head. She yelled, "People should be equal before the law! Give me justice!"
Chen said she had been lobbying authorities to punish the criminal gang she held responsible for her husband's death in 1994. She spoke for several minutes before a few police officers pushed her away.
Wu Huizhen, a 58-year-old Beijing resident who says her home was demolished in 1993 without adequate compensation, said she traveled to Jinan to "see what Chinese justice looks like."
"Ordinary people have no protections," Wu said. "It's not only Bo Xilai who is corrupt. They are all corrupt."