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.