Bo Xilai Trial
The Lawyer’s Story
Wang Zhaofeng, a veteran lawyer, got the shock of his life when he was asked to represent disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai at the trial of the decade
Wang Zhaofeng has been working at the Beijing DeHeng Law Office for many years. His wife knew he worked hard, but when he suddenly began to disappear on a special assignment, she became concerned about his whereabouts.
It was only months later that she discovered what her husband had been doing – constructing a defense for Bo Xilai, the disgraced former Chongqing party chief and fallen member of the Politburo, the Communist Party’s highest authority.
Wang Zhaofeng, his colleague Li Guifang, and DeHeng’s director Wang Li were sworn to secrecy about the nature of the case.
After Bo Xilai was expelled from the Communist Party of China and removed from public posts at the end of September 2012, and it was announced he would stand trial for corruption, speculation abounded concerning his defense. It was reported that Bo’s family shortlisted several lawyers including Wang Zhaofeng and Li Guifang as potential representatives for Bo. State Media also reported that Bo Xilai’s son Bo Guagua had personally invited Li Xiaolin, former defense counsel for his jailed mother Gu Kailai’s aide Zhang Xiaojun, who was charged in 2012 with murdering British businessman Neil Heywood, to defend his father.
Li Guifang and Wang Zhaofeng, simply by appearing at Bo’s trial, became overnight celebrities. Li had been practicing law for over 20 years and had risen to become a partner at DeHeng. As an academic adviser to law schools at Tsinghua and Peking universities, China’s foremost academic institutions, Li was well known for his ability to handle criminal litigation, and had served as long-term legal counsel to several State-owned enterprises and government agencies.
Wang Zhaofeng, 44, a PhD in law from Renmin University of China, was a specialist in economic crimes. He studied for a short time at Cambridge University in 2004 and Cornell University in 2009, boosting his prestige in Chinese legal circles.
“It is easy to be misinterpreted,” Wang told NewsChina, insisting that it was Bo Xilai himself who selected his defense counsel from a list drawn up by the courts under Party supervision. Wang added that Bo’s case was exceptional, as its occupation of the international and domestic media spotlight put a huge amount of pressure on those involved.
Wang also revealed that he had mixed feelings towards Bo himself. In 2010, Wang served as defense counsel for a suspect implicated in Bo’s crackdown on alleged gang crime in Chongqing. Wang said he was surprised at the procedural injustice and the “mayhem” he claims followed the crackdown. His client was sentenced to 20 years in jail in a ruling Wang has continued to question ever since.
Two years later, Wang became Bo’s lawyer. His wife attempted to discourage him from taking on such a politicized and infamous client, but by that point Wang had already met with Bo several times and was determined to represent him.
At the end of October, 2012, Bo met his defense lawyers for the first time at Qincheng prison. Located in Beijing’s northern Changping district, the jail is known for its high-profile inmates, most of whom are fallen officials.
Wang remembered that Bo wore an overcoat to their first meeting. After exchanging greetings, they got directly down to discussing the case. The two lawyers explained the judicial procedures and asked whether Bo had any particular requirements. They claimed they were caught off-guard by Bo’s response: “I have no requests of you, but please act dutifully in accordance with the law.”
Bo’s attitude – requesting his counsel to do their jobs properly rather than simply save his skin – was a relief to his defense lawyers. Wang told our reporter that ousted officials often make demands far beyond the capabilities of their defense lawyers, often embarrassing both their counsel and themselves in the process.
The defense’s first meeting with Bo, by contrast, was straightforward and productive. After discussing the case for more than an hour Bo signed the authorization letter agreeing to have Wang and Li represent him. Wang observed that Bo was calm, and spoke in a clear, logical manner. He had been expecting to see the darker side of the political pariah paraded on TV, but instead found himself working with an intelligent, circumspect and polite client.
After their first meeting, Li and Wang threw themselves head-first into constructing their case. They met Bo about once a month and gradually both parties grew increasingly familiar. Sometimes, Bo even greeted his lawyers in English, saying he had had a passion for the language since his youth. He told his lawyers how he took to practicing English while working in a factory many years ago, and could even recite speeches by former US president John F. Kennedy. However, small talk was limited, and most of the time Bo was rigorously interested in his case.
Wang’s previous impressions of Bo were formed through the portrayals in the State media, which cast him as an aggressive and determined leader. In person, Wang found Bo to be sharp and meticulous, and he often contributed details to bolster his defense that his counsel were unaware of. Bo devoured every document his counsel produced, adding in his own details, even correcting wording and improving layout. Bo made it clear that, although his lawyers might assist him, his voice would be heard when he took the stand.
On July 25, 2013, Bo was indicted for bribery, corruption and abuse of power and was told he would stand trial at the Ji’nan Intermediate People’s Court in Shandong Province. After discussing the indictment with Bo, his defense agreed to plead not guilty.
Despite their cordial working relationship, Wang Zhaofeng was constantly aware that Bo never fully trusted his defense counsel. “We were approved by Bo’s family, but not in his presence. As a result, he was still dubious about us,” Wang told NewsChina.
Bo would often challenge his lawyers’ commitment to defending him. “Can you speak for me in court? Are you courageous enough?” he asked on one occasion.
“We will act according to the law,” Wang replied, echoing Bo’s words at their first meeting.
In the weeks leading up to the trial, Bo and his defense regularly worked late into the night. Wang Zhaofeng tried to anticipate every possible scenario in court. He was fully aware of who would give testimony – Wang Lijun, Bo’s former strongman, who was well versed in Chinese legal procedure after his lengthy stint as Chongqing’s chief of police. After attempting to defect to the US in the summer of 2012, Wang Lijun was sentenced to 15 years in prison for bending the law for selfish ends, defection, abuse of power and bribe-taking on September 24, 2012. Speculation was rife that Wang had worked out a plea bargain in exchange for testifying against Bo, his former boss.
On August 22, 2013, Bo stood trial in Ji’nan. Live updates of the proceedings were released on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, a first in Chinese legal history. Wang was unaware of this until he was informed via text message while the court was still in session.
The Ji’nan Intermediate People’s Court’s Weibo feed had more than 582,000 followers as of August 26, when the trial concluded. Xinhua reported that the 160 posts that appeared online during the trial had been re-tweeted hundreds of thousands of times.
After the first day in court, Bo Xilai congratulated his lawyers, joking that he should have known they’d do a good job, as the acronym for “Li and Wang” was “law.”
In court, Wang and other observers were impressed with Bo’s composure, despite the salacious details concerning his personal life which the prosecution chose to reveal for the court. Wang Lijun, by contrast, was visibly agitated, shifting in his seat as he was cross-examined by his former boss.
“Lijun, don’t worry, take your time,” Bo remarked at one point.
On the third day, however, 64-year-old Bo became very tired. Wang Zhaofeng called for a postponement, and the court agreed to shorten the fourth day of the trial.
On September 22, Bo was sentenced to life imprisonment for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. He was also deprived of his political rights for life.
Wang Zhaofeng noticed that Bo heard the verdict with absolute calm. He asked his lawyers to take time to prepare his appeal and thanked them for their help. He even told them that only through rule of law could the Chinese public enjoy a sense of security, adding that lawyers would be instrumental in delivering this change to China.
On October 25, Bo’s appeal was rejected by the Shandong Higher People’s Court. Bo Xilai was unperturbed, even smiling as the verdict was read. Wang guessed that Bo’s confidence stemmed from his knowledge that he wouldn’t face a harsher penalty – his wife, Gu Kailai, had been sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve at her trial.
Bo Xilai told Wang Zhaofeng he would study traditional Chinese literature while in jail. He also allegedly expressed an interest in studying traditional Chinese medicine and calligraphy.
“Calligraphy practice is very good for your health,” he told Wang, in one of their last conversations. “Did you know that calligraphy masters have an average age of 79?”
Sign-Up for the News China Email Update
Every month you"ll receive the latest stories from the most recent issue of News China.
Badeling Pass | Beijing
Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
Or send photos to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please include your name, location and date of photo
- ROOTS AND BRANCHES
- RINGING ENDORSEMENT
- A SILVER LINING
- China’s climate change deal is a triumph
- Second-generation Little Emperors
- BAD MEDICINE
- “China needs to balance assertive-ness with prudence in its diplomacy”
- FILES NAILED
- Land reform must redress the systematic bias against farmers
- WHISTLING INTO THE WIND