How Chinese Courts Try Their Cases on Social Media

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In China's notoriously opaque legal system, both prosecution and defense teams are starting turn to social media—specifically Weibo—in attempts to alter public opinion. The most prominent recent example of this has been during the trial (some say show trial) of Bo Xilai, the disgraced former member of the Politburo who was charged last month with bribery, corruption, and abuse of power.

During Xilai's five-day trial, the Jinan Intermediate People's Court posted updates on Weibo about the hearing, allowing people to monitor the proceedings. The government stated that, "The public hearing and the Weibo broadcasts reflect the transparency and openness of the country’s rule of law.”

In 2012, defendants were also permitted to use Weibo to update those monitoring trials in real-time as well. In one instance, a man managed to get his sentence reduced after his legal team pointed out improper procedure online. But Foreign Policy reports that the privilege of online activity previously allowed on both sides of a case, and which help develop the idea that the Chinese government holds open and fair trials, is now only allowed to the prosecution:

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.

Regardless of how social media-savvy the government is, it's still only allowing one interpretation of the proceedings.

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During Xilai's trial, the court posted an unsubtle, boastful update that read, "the Jinan Intermediate People's Court ceaselessly deepens its case research and strengthens its case guidance work." The BBC quotes several Chinese lawyers and legal experts who praised the openness of the case although the openness might have the opposite of the governments intended effect, by making the defendant more sympathetic. According to Bloomberg, at least one Weibo user tweeted in "I’ve changed my view of him! He is much more gentlemanly than those with power and he really does know the law.”

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.