JINAN, China – Ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai recanted a confession of bribery while prosecutors alleged he used his wife and son to help collect more than $4 million in illicit funds, as he stood trial Thursday in China's biggest political scandal in decades.
Court officials released frequent microblog updates on the testimony in an unusual display of openness for a major political trial, suggesting ruling Communist Party officials were confident of minimizing damage from a scandal that exposed a murder and high-level infighting among China's elite.
Bo denied taking payments from Tang Xiaolin, the general manager of an international development corporation in the northeastern city of Dalian, where Bo once held key posts, though he said he had previously admitted to party investigators that he had done so.
"The matter of me taking money on three occasions, as Tang Xiaolin said, does not exist," Bo said. "During the time I was being investigated by the Central Disciplinary Commission, I once admitted to this matter against my will ... However, at the time, I had absolutely no knowledge of the nature of the matter, my mind was a total blank."
"I hope the judge will reasonably and fairly judge, and judge this according to the laws of our country," Bo was quoted as saying in one of the Sina Weibo posts by the Jinan Intermediate People's Court.
Once the powerful party boss in the megacity of Chongqing, the charismatic Bo became the most senior leader to fall from power in years after revelations emerged early last year that his wife had killed a British businessman, making the Bo family an international diplomatic liability for the Chinese leadership.
The charges against him include abuse of power in covering up that murder, as well as bribery and embezzlement. The accusations appear carefully calibrated to lay blame on the self-serving actions of Bo and his family and provide enough culpability to bury his political career, while avoiding allegations that could expose the party's factional squabbling or show the impunity with which top Chinese officials operate before they fall from favor.
Prosecutors gave new details of the allegations against Bo and his family, including accusations that Bo used both his wife, Gu Kailai, and his son, Bo Guagua, as intermediaries in accepting more than $3 million in Dalian. They also alleged that Bo instructed an underling to keep quiet a payment to the city of $800,000, and that Bo diverted it into personal funds with the help of his wife, according to the Jinan court updates.
Although reporters from foreign media outlets were kept from the courtroom, official said 19 journalists attended the proceedings.
Bo's removal had marked China's biggest upheaval in the leadership since the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989. Bo's revival of the symbolism of Mao Zedong's radical era had unnerved China's previous leadership, although current leader Xi Jinping, installed last fall, has appeared keen to adopt his own brand of Mao-like tactics.
Earlier Thursday, Bo entered the courthouse in a convoy under police escort. Though kept far away from the media, some of Bo's supporters gathered outside a security perimeter around the court venue, intermittently yelling out, "He served the people!" and "He was a good cadre!"
That Bo enjoys residual popularity among some of the Chinese public underscores how effective the media-savvy politician was in portraying himself as a man of the people. He spoke often of tackling the burgeoning income inequality gap and introduced housing and other social policies in Chongqing that made him beloved by the poor.
Bo mobilized people in Chongqing to sing communist anthems, campaigns that resonated with people who've felt increasingly alienated from a party and government seen as corrupt and morally bankrupt.
"Bo tapped into these ideas with the 'red songs,' and invoked a certain kind of camaraderie and unity that has been missing," said Dali Yang, head of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing. "He created in some way a moral universe that made people feel much more confident and hopeful in some ways, certainly in Chongqing."
The scandal was triggered last year when Bo's police chief, a top aide, fled to a U.S. consulate in a neighboring city, an event that embarrassed the party's leadership ahead of a key political transition. It would later emerge that the police chief had evidence of the Briton's murder in late 2011.
A guilty verdict against Bo is all but assured, because the outcomes of high-profile political trials in China are usually decided by backroom negotiations by politicians and handed down by the court. Bo's downfall also has been widely perceived as the result of his defeat in party infighting ahead of China's once-a-decade leadership transition last fall.
"Bo Xilai's faction fell out of grace during the power struggle among top leaders," said Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent human rights lawyer based in Beijing. "In reality, it does not matter what he is charged with ... because this is it is a political trial, which does not represent the spirit of law."
Bo's wife confessed to killing Neil Heywood and was handed a suspended death sentence last year that will likely be commuted to life imprisonment. Bo's aide, Wang Lijun, was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for making his thwarted defection bid and helping Gu cover up the murder.
Analysts have noted that none of the charges against Bo appear to involve the widespread human rights abuses alleged to have been carried out during his unfettered rule as Chongqing party chief, including during his much-publicized crackdown on the city's mafia gangs.
Jinan resident Yu Ming, 46, questioned whether the trial would bring greater openness in China.
"The real questions are, did he not trample the law? Did he not violate human rights? We shouldn't just look at corruption alone," Yu said. "What we are more concerned about is, after the Bo Xilai case is over, what direction will China go in? Will we have human rights? Will we have the right to vote?"