A spectator is surrounded by journalists Thursday after exiting the Hefei City Intermediate People's Court where the trial of Gu Kailai for murder takes place. (AP/Eugene Hoshiko)
A spectator is surrounded by journalists Thursday after exiting the Hefei City Intermediate People's Court where the trial of Gu Kailai for murder takes place. (AP/Eugene Hoshiko)

Umbrellas cast shadow over ‘open’ trial in China

We cover all kinds of censorship here at CPJ. Recently we documented the cunning application of scissors to prevent readers from accessing China-related articles in hard copy magazines. But it’s been a while since we’ve had chance to write about one favored implement of information control in China: the umbrella. 

Longtime China watchers may remember security officials brandishing parasols in Tiananmen Square on June 4 in 2009, apparently trying to deflect reporters covering the 20th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on anti-government protesters. While they may have obstructed a few standard shots of tourists in the square, the footage of serious-looking security forces toting the colorful barriers in front of the cameras more than made up for the blocked shots. 

Men who were likely plain-clothed security officials employed the same tactic outside the murder trial of Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai–whose name is sometimes rendered as Bogu Kailai, perhaps to emphasize her connection with her husband, the flamboyant former Communist Party chief of Chongqing. Gu and an aide are on trial for poisoning British citizen Neil Heywood over an unspecified “economic dispute”–she did not contest the charge of intentional homicide in the courtroom today, according to local and international news reports. News of the murder emerged amid corruption accusations against Bo which led to his dismissal, not just from his post, but from the running for top leadership positions opening up when current Politburo Standing Committee members retire at the end of this year.

State media has presented the criminal case against Gu as “irrefutable,” but appears hesitant to draw a connection to the background corruption scandal, which may be a sign that the leadership is reluctant to expose any wrongdoing by Bo Xilai himself. Still, Bo overshadows the proceedings. It was his supporters outside the court who prompted the umbrella black-out, to prevent journalists from photographing them, according to Voice of America and other international news outlets. “Initially there was some undercover police, it looked like some undercover thugs who tried to block cameras with their umbrellas,” VOA quoted reporter Shannon Van Sant saying. When that didn’t prove effective, security forces switched up a gear, beating individuals and bundling at least two supporters into vehicles and driving them away, Van Sant told VOA.

It is deeply ironic to witness a former political star undergoing the kind of treatment that journalists and dissidents face when they are tried for trying to expose official misconduct, but contain your schadenfreude. The umbrellas, ineffective as they seem, are an indication that media control remains the leadership’s top priority during what they have repeatedly touted as an “open” trial–even inviting U.K. officials to attend, according to Bloomberg News.  Xinhua proudly announced that “more than 140 people attended the trial,” including “people from all walks of life.”

Use of the umbrella in this context may be entertaining, but we don’t welcome its return to China’s panoply of censorship apparatus. It hugely undermines the transparency and due process which every defendant–not just the wife of a disgraced leader– deserves. If security officials are willing to flout media freedom at such a public event, what hope is there for open coverage at trials of the lesser-known?