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Sensational China murder case gets muted news coverage

August 9, 2012 |  1:58 pm


The sensational murder case of Gu Kailai in China has not gotten the sensational coverage that Westerners are accustomed to in major trials, according to media observers and news reports.

The accusation that Gu, the wife of former Politburo member Bo Xilai, poisoned a British businessman has dominated headlines and Internet news searches in the West. Chinese state media covered the case as it went to trial Thursday, but the news often played second banana to an injured Chinese Olympic hurdler undergoing surgery and other Olympics coverage.

Instead of breathless coverage or commentary, many major news outlets reprinted the simple official account from the New China News Agency. In the English edition of the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, the online story ran below articles on the global arms market and the United States’ purported meddling in the South China Sea debate.

Chinese officials have taken pains to show the trial was fair; though foreign journalists were kept out of the courtroom, the briefing given after the trial was unusual in a sensitive case, The Times’ Barbara Demick reports from Beijing.

But while state television broadcast video of the defendant being led into court and the two British diplomats allowed in to observe, no news of the trial appeared on the main evening news broadcast for CCTV, which is more widely seen and tightly controlled, the Associated Press reported.

“The Chinese authorities realize now you can’t completely black out the news,” said Guobin Yang, associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “But there’s no intention of having any public discussion of this case. So they’re trying to get the news out – but in a very elliptical way.”

Searching “Gu Kailai” on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, is fruitless because the name is blocked. Even passing along the official news from New China News Agency isn’t allowed, tweeted Li Yuan, managing editor of the Chinese edition of the Wall Street Journal. And some Chinese users couldn’t get onto the service at all, as it reportedly suffered an unexplained outage Thursday afternoon.

  But Chinese Internet users are still talking about the trial under the names “Hefei,” where the court is located, or simply “trial,” Yang said. Reuters reported that users were playing a cat-and-mouse game with censors, using word play to dodge the swifter-than-usual deletions.

As television images of the trial appeared, there was a flurry of speculation on Weibo about the fact that Gu appeared in a black suit with a white blouse, instead of the usual prison garb.

“People are asking, does that mean she feels sure she will be found innocent? ‘Black-and-white’ in Chinese can be interpreted as ‘innocent,’” Yang said.

The muted coverage of the case is a sharp contrast to another major case in China, that of the widow of Mao Tse-tung, whose dramatic trial was heavily covered by Chinese outlets. That trial was aimed at  exorcising the “bad old Maoist days” of the Cultural Revolution, wrote Newsweek Beijing bureau chief Melinda Liu.

This case, in turn, is one that could be risky for Chinese leaders, especially if the trial lingers on allegations that Bo and Gu had sent ill-gotten millions overseas, The Times reported this week.

"They don't want to focus on overseas assets, because all Chinese leaders do the same and Bo Xilai's family wouldn't be the worst when it comes to corruption," Gao Wenqian, senior policy advisor at New York-based Human Rights in China, told The Times.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: A court spectator is surrounded by journalists after coming out from the Hefei City Intermediate People's Court where the murder trial of Gu Kailai took place Thursday. Credit: Eugene Hoshiko / Associated Press