The Court of No Opinion

The bizarre story of how the prosecution in Bo Xilai's show trial won the Weibo news cycle.

For five drama-filled days in August, the provincial capital of Jinan hosted the trial of fallen Chongqing Party boss and political heavyweight Bo Xilai. A former member of the Politburo, China's elite decision-making body, Bo was purged in early 2012 after his right-hand man Wang Lijun fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, bearing evidence that Bo's wife had murdered a British businessman. The trial for bribery, corruption, and abuse of power, which ended on Aug. 26, riveted observers, and not just because Bo's downfall exposed cracks in the Communist Party's unified façade. Bo's charisma and swagger were unique among China's high-level politicians, although few expected that swagger to be on display in the tightly controlled environment of a Chinese courtroom. When details of the trial began to emerge in near-real time on the popular microblogging site Sina Weibo, commentators were stunned to learn that Bo had stayed true to form, cross-examining witnesses and even denying some of the allegations against him.

Online -- where much of modern China's political discourse now resides -- the star of the trial was the Jinan Intermediate People's Court, which burst onto Weibo on Aug. 18 with these staid but potent words: "Announcement: At 8:30 in the morning on August 22, 2013, the Jinan Intermediate People's Court will hear the case of defendant Bo Xilai for bribery, corruption, and abuse of power. So announced."

Following its debut broadcast, the court behaved like many of China's 60,000-plus government-run microblogs. It posted self-congratulatory status updates ("the Jinan Intermediate People's Court ceaselessly deepens its case research and strengthens its case guidance work"), explanations of the number and types of cases the court hears, and, the evening before the Bo trial, a nugget from Warring State-era philosopher Han Feizi, reminding readers that, at 2,000 years' remove, even da chen, or imperial ministers, are subject to criminal punishment. Along the way, the court's Weibo account racked up hundreds of thousands of followers eager to catch even the most oblique glimpse into the courtroom.

The Jinan Court, which was one of the most comprehensive sources of information about the trial, ultimately produced dozens of posts during those five days, many of which contained courtroom photographs and trial transcripts. A worthy debate ensued both inside and outside of China over whether these communications represented a laudable step forward in transparency, a cynical official effort to co-opt the narrative, or something else.  

While China's courts are famously opaque, the last few years have seen a remarkable rise in defense lawyers opening a window to the courtroom, microblogging the details of ongoing cases. This in-court microblogging looked like it might have the power to increase the transparency of China's legal system, which operates in deference to Party interests and faces a serious trust deficit. Playing to the court of public opinion occasionally had benefits. In a January 2012 case in the southern province of Guizhou, the judge decreased the defendant's sentence by four years after his defense team publicized legal inconsistencies.

But in the summer of 2012, defense lawyers appealing Chongqing businessman Li Qinghong's 15-year sentence for involvement in organized crime used live-blogging court proceedings to counterweight the mainstream media's jaundiced depictions of their client. During Li's 47-day appeal, his defense lawyers published more than 1,000 posts, covering details as granular as typographical errors in the indictment and the relative loudness of the prosecution to defense microphones. (Li's conviction by a lower court was ultimately upheld.)

The ability to live-microblog a trial was never going to substitute for the robust protections, both in law and in practice, necessary for any high-profile defendant to get a fair trial. Nonetheless, in the hands of a brave and savvy defense lawyer, new media provided an occasional bulwark against the worst procedural abuses. 

But the Li Qinghong case, and the widespread attention it generated online, was evidently too much for Chinese authorities. Several months after the March 2012 passage of revisions to China's Criminal Procedure Law, the Supreme People's Court, China's top court, issued a detailed judicial interpretation of those rules. This interpretation, which took effect Jan. 1, 2013, banned "participants and observers" from using recording devices, cameras, or cell phones in court, or "broadcasting the situation inside the courtroom via email, blogs, microblogs, or other means." 

That sounds fair enough, but it's not applied evenly; the Criminal Procedure Law's definition of "participant and observers" does not include police, prosecutors, or judges. In effect, the new Supreme Court rules constitute a limited gag order aimed at Internet-savvy defense lawyers and their clients.

Lawyers were keen to the implications of this rule as soon as its draft was made available for public comment. Rights attorney Cui Jia'nan wrote on Sina Weibo in August 2012 that "The Supreme Court's interpretation illegally deprives citizens of the right to supervise open trials. It makes open trials secret and protects under-the-table dealing."

The Bo trial is a perfect example of what Cui meant: at once open and secret. While Bo's words indeed thunder on the transcript, they were channeled within the four corners of the Jinan court's microblog. And notably, his chosen defense lawyers not only were barred from the courtroom, but made not a peep in cyberspace during the trial. While Bo's outspokenness shone through, readers were left to speculate what might have been omitted, airbrushed, or changed.

It is impossible to infer a trend from a single incident. Bo's trial may signal a move toward greater transparency in Chinese courts. If so, it will be because the Communist Party prefers it, not because criminal procedure compels it. Sanguine observers would do well to remember that this riveting act in the dramatic downfall of Bo was narrated by the Jinan court's Weibo, a chorus of one.


Let's Power Africa

Cowboys Stadium uses more electricity than the entire country of Liberia. But African leaders, together with the White House and U.S. Congress, are working to end the scourge of energy poverty.

In the developed world, reliable energy is something that can be taken for granted. People pay attention only when something goes wrong, like when the power goes out during the Super Bowl, forcing players and fans to sit uncomfortably in the dark for 34 minutes.

In my country, the West African nation of Liberia, living without power has become a way of life. For the last decade, we've been digging out from the aftermath of a 23-year civil war that left our energy infrastructure in shambles. In a country of 4.1 million, only about 1 percent of urban residents -- and almost no rural residents -- have access to electricity. Everyone else depends on unreliable and inefficient sources of energy such as firewood, charcoal, candles, kerosene, battery-powered flashlights, palm oil, and small gasoline and diesel generators. Many of these energy sources are toxic and create pollutants that have serious health consequences for our country.

This is why I was delighted when U.S. President Barack Obama put energy poverty at the center of his trip to Africa this summer. His new initiative, called Power Africa, aims to double electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa by responsibly building on the continent's potential in gas and oil as well as its huge potential to develop clean energy.

Initially focusing on six key partner countries, including my own, Power Africa will mobilize the U.S. private sector to add 10,000 megawatts (MW) of cleaner, more efficient electricity generation capacity, while also increasing electricity access by at least 20 million new households and businesses. The White House has pledged $7 billion over the next five years in support of the initiative (most of which will be returned to U.S. taxpayers because of the structure of the plan's public-private partnerships). In addition, the American private sector has committed an additional $9 billion in direct assistance.

The U.S. Congress is also taking action to address African energy poverty. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the committee's ranking member, have introduced the "Electrify Africa Act of 2013," a bill that would address some of the limitations of the Power Africa initiative and have the complementary goal of providing electricity access to more than 50 million people by installing 20,000 MW of energy capacity by 2020.

It is heartening to see Obama, Congress, the United Nations, and the World Bank focused on increasing energy access in sub-Saharan Africa. They are keenly aware that without a reliable power supply, patients are treated in under-equipped hospitals, vaccines requiring refrigeration can become unusable, students cannot study after dark, and routine business transactions are exceedingly difficult.

As the first female president of an African state, I'm particularly concerned about the disproportionate impact energy poverty has on women and girls. In many places without power, women and girls are forced to spend hours each day in the time-consuming task of hunting for fuel and firewood -- often a key reason that girls spend less time in school than boys. Women are also disproportionately affected by respiratory illness as a result of indoor air pollution from open fires and kerosene used for cooking, heating, and lighting. Even the simple act of being outdoors becomes fraught with danger for women and girls in some places when the sun goes down and there are no streetlights.

Globally, at least 1.2 billion people -- nearly a fifth of the planet -- lives without access to electricity, according to the World Bank. The highest concentration is in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 550 million people do not have electricity. Cowboys Stadium near Dallas, Texas, uses more electricity than the total installed capacity of my country. Small businesses in Liberia spend about 57 percent of their operational costs on power alone. At this rate, it is impossible for them to do much more than break even. And this is representative of the scale of the problem in many countries across the African continent.

African leaders are doing their part, putting in place bold plans to increase energy access for our people and committing to responsibly harness our own energy resources. As president, I signed an executive order establishing Liberia's Rural and Renewable Energy Agency (RREA) and a Rural Energy Fund (REFUND) to bring modern energy services to the country's rural areas. With support from the United States, Norway, the European Union, and the World Bank, we are making progress toward getting the lights turned on in Liberia.

My commitment to this task is guided by the knowledge that reliable energy access is a basic precondition for almost all aspects of modern life -- from reliable and efficient lighting, heating, and cooking, to manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, telecommunications, and self-sustaining economic growth.

In Liberia, we've seen how partnerships with the United States have made enormous differences in people's lives. Thanks in part to American support, we're building roads, schools, and hospitals. And across the continent, millions of lives have been saved by programs like PEPFAR (the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and the GAVI Alliance (the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization).

Now, the United States has a unique opportunity to partner again with Africans as we work to bring modern energy access to the continent. More than two dozen African states have already committed to support the goal of providing universal energy access by 2030 through the United Nations' Sustainable Energy for All initiative. Combining this political will with the tools, expertise, and support of the U.S. government and private sector, we can collectively bring power to millions of people for the first time.

Photo: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images