JINAN, China - Bo Xilai, once a feisty Communist Party chieftain in the running to lead China, told a provincial court Thursday he would fight some of the charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power against him.
The 64-year-old Bo said as his trial opened that he had wrongly confessed last year to a disciplinary panel of the Communist Party without fully understanding the charges against him.
"I didn’t know the details at the time. My brain was a blank," Bo said, according to an excerpt released by the court.
The trial in the provincial capital of Jinan, 250 miles south of Beijing, opened inside a courthouse guarded by hundreds of uniformed police and paramilitary. Reporters were kept outside in a police-cordoned holding pen.
In a style befitting the 21st century, the court communicated with the public by posting perfunctory updates on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like service popular in China.
Bo was shown in a white button-down shirt, black trousers and well-shined leather shoes, instead of the usual orange prison garb. The still photograph released by the court was the first public glimpse of Bo since he was purged and vanished from public life in March 2012.
He was cleanshaven, despite speculation that he had grown a beard in protest, but his gaunt appearance suggested the rumors of a hunger strike were true. In the photo, his shoulders were slumped and his pressed lips could be read as expressing irony.
Unlike the chastened defendants in some other recent Chinese trials, Bo quickly began to pick apart the evidence.
In particular, he objected to an assertion that he had taken bribes from a real estate developer, Tang Xiaolin, who worked for the city of Dalian, where Bo had been mayor in the 1990s.
Bo said he had allowed Tang to build an office building on Dalian’s behalf in the city of Shenzhen out of public interest, not greed.
"I approved the [real estate] project because I believed it was good for the city of Dalian," Bo said, according to the transcript.
The court said he was accused of using his public positions to accept bribes worth $3.6 million at current exchange rates from businessmen Xu Ming as well as Tang. The indictment said that the bribes were passed through his wife, Gu Kailai, and his son, Bo Guagua.
The embezzlement charges relate to $820,000 Bo allegedly skimmed off of the renovation of government offices in Dalian in 2002.
Bo is also accused of abuse of power from his most recent post, as Communist Party secretary of Chongqing. Those charges stem from the 2011 killing of Neil Heywood, a British expatriate who worked with the Bo family.
Bo’s wife was convicted last year of poisoning Heywood. Although Bo is not implicated in the slaying, he is charged with pressuring Chongqing’s former police chief, Wang Lijun, to kill the investigation.
Police closed off a six-lane road passing by the courthouse. There appeared to be hundreds, perhaps well over 1,000, security personnel surrounding the courthouse. The defendant, family and lawyers were all driven inside the walled compound in motorcades of vehicles with tinted windows.
A blue tarpaulin-shaded holding pen and a bus with portable toilets were set up outside the courthouse for the more than 200 foreign journalists registered to cover the trial.
Bo still has many supporters, mostly among neo-Maoists who believe he would restore the Communist Party’s core ideology. They contend that he he is being prosecuted because he challenged current Chinese leader Xi Jinping for power.
In streets near the courthouse, Bo’s fans played a cat-and-mouse game with police, trying to give interviews to foreign reporters before they could be whisked away.
"We want to make sure that Bo gets a fair trial," said Yu Wenguang, a 37-year-old technician who wore a red Mao badge on his T-shirt. "Since we can’t protest publicly, I am wearing my Mao badge as a form of silent protest."