The murder trial of former Chinese leader Bo Xilai’s wife which opens Thursday goes to the heart of a corruption scandal that has rocked the Communist party ahead of a 10-yearly handover of power.
The charismatic and ambitious Bo saw his promising political career brought to a dramatic halt earlier this year when a key aide fled to a US consulate and accused his boss’s wife of involvement in the murder of a British businessman.
The move blew open a political scandal that has exposed deep rifts in China’s ruling Communist party as the country’s most senior officials prepare to give way to a new generation of leaders later this year.
Analysts say Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, herself a celebrated lawyer, will almost certainly be found guilty of murdering British business associate Neil Heywood when she is tried in the eastern Chinese city of Hefei on Thursday.
But they say the verdict — and the fate of Bo himself — are tied to the bargaining currently taking place at the very highest levels of the party over who will run China for the next decade.
“Apparently, some kind of agreement has been reached on the Bo Xilai case, and this certainly has been in the bargaining and the lobbying concerning the final decisions on the leadership line-up,” said Joseph Cheng, a political analyst at Hong Kong’s City University who specialises in China.
As Gu awaited trial this week, senior party leaders are believed to have begun gathering in the seaside resort of Beidahe to discuss who will be promoted to the top echelons of power later this year.
Any leniency shown to Bo “will be compensated for by gains in the preferred leadership line-up,” which will be revealed at the 18th Party Congress later this year, said Cheng.
That decision-making process is notoriously opaque and it is unclear exactly what form any compensation might take, but there are suggestions that agreeing to treat Bo leniently could give his opponents an edge in negotiations.
Observers have characterised Bo’s fall from grace as a victory for outgoing president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao, who favour economic and social reforms in China.
Bo’s Maoist-style “red revival” campaign which he mounted while party boss in the southwestern megacity of Chongqing drew accolades from the party’s traditionalist left but alarmed other senior figures.
His political career has effectively been over since April when the party suspended him from his senior positions and placed him under investigation for violation of discipline — usually code for corruption.
Even before the Heywood affair came to light, Bo had alienated many senior party members by openly lobbying to join the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top decision-making body, seven of whose nine members are due to step down later this year.
He was also heavily criticised for blatantly ignoring judicial procedures during a fierce crackdown on organised crime that saw several people executed in Chongqing during his time as Communisty party secretary.
Analysts say the scandal over Heywood — who was found dead last November in his hotel room — gave his opponents the excuse that they were looking for to oust Bo, and he is now thought to be under house arrest.
Chinese state media has said that Gu feared Heywood posed a threat to the safety of her son — an indication, some experts believe, that she will be spared the maximum sentence of the death penalty.
Gu’s trial is expected to last just one or two days. State-run media have touted the case as evidence that not even elites like Gu — the daughter of a renowned general — and Bo are above the law.
An editorial in the Global Times daily said it had “sent a message to society that nobody, regardless of his or her status and power, can be exempt from punishment if he or she behaves unscrupulously.”
Political corruption is a major cause of public outrage in China, where many still live in poverty.
But Steve Tsang, head of the China Policy Institute at Britain’s University of Nottingham, said that when it comes to determining the fate of Bo and Gu, heeding public opinion comes second to winning consensus among leaders.
“The real issue really is what to do with Bo Xilai,” he said. “That requires a lot of significant compromises between the two main power blocks in the top leadership. And that is the crux of the matter.”