BEIJING — The long-awaited trial of deposed Chinese politician Bo Xilai will begin Thursday, a court announced Sunday, setting into motion the final chapter of one of modern China’s most dramatic and politically fraught cases and carrying deep potential implications for the ruling Communist Party.
For more than a year, the once-powerful regional party chief Bo has been at the center of scandal, political maneuvering and negotiations within the party. His fall from grace — sparked in part by the suspicious death of a British businessman — led to the party’s biggest scandal and crisis in the past two decades and exposed divisions among its leaders. Because of the danger that those rifts pose to the party, the outcome of Thursday’s trial has probably already been decided, say political analysts and party officials.
“The verdict won’t be made by the court, but by the seven members of the party’s standing committee,” said Zhang Sizhi, a lawyer who defended Jiang Qing, the widow of party founder Mao Zedong, in a similarly sensational and politically charged trial in 1980. “Everything in court is already arranged. The court will be nothing but a rehearsed performance.”
For the past year, party leaders have been working outhow to deal with Bo in a way that satisfies party factions that support and oppose him, say many party officials speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case.
For years, Bo campaigned for promotion to China’s highest circle of power — a seat on the seven-member standing committee. In pursuit of that goal, he cultivated powerful party and military allies but also became a polarizing figure.
Bo represented a brash, left-wing Maoist ideology that was in some ways the antithesis of the party’s market-driven factions. But the scandal and inner party battle that led to his fall from grace were largely struggles between power factions and not over ideological differences, party officials say.
Many believe that the negotiations over his fate have played out largely along the same lines. One key factor is Bo’s complicated relationship with China’s new president, Xi Jinping. Both belong to the party’s new generation of “princelings,” children of the party’s founding fathers. But the two did not always get along.
“Bo was very ambitious. He looked down upon Xi Jinping when he was young,” said one person with close ties with other princelings and schoolmates of the two. “When mentioning Xi Jinping in any occasion in those days, Bo Xilai often called him ‘idiot,’ and Xi knew it.”
Now, as adults, Xi and Bo are on opposite ends of the trial process. Xi — still in his first year as China’s top leader and trying to consolidate his hold on power — faces the thorny question of how severely to deal with Bo.
In an apparent reflection of Xi’s delicate position heading into the trial, former president Jiang Zemin recently issued an unusual comment praising Xi and urging party members to support him.
On Bo’s side, some believe that his main tools of leverage are the threat of division posed by his supporters as well as his knowledge, as a former member of the high-ranking party cadre, of potentially embarrassing secrets about others.
Working against Bo is the party’s leverage in deciding not just his fate but also possible adverse effects on the future of his adult son Bo Guagua, who is studying in the United States.
In a sign of how carefully party leaders are managing the trial, supporters and critics of Bo who have been especially vocal about him in the past said in online posts and through friends that they have been arrested or put under surveillance by police in recent days. And the trial will be held in the city of Jinan in eastern Shandong province, far away from Bo’s power base in the megacity of Chongqing.
Bo has not been heard from since his ouster from the party and its powerful 25-member Politburo. His wife, Gu Kailai, and former lieutenant Wang Lijun were both tried and sentenced on charges related to the death of Briton Neil Heywood. Many critics have also derided their trials as predetermined show trials.
There was no mention of Heywood’s death in the charges against Bo. The allegations are limited to bribery, graft and abuse of power — which some analysts see as a possible indication of a more lenient sentence.
Some in the party believe that Bo will be spared a death sentence — even a suspended one — because of an informal agreement protecting Politburo members against it.
A harsh sentence is also not necessary politically because Bo has already been removed from power, said Li Weidong, an analyst and former editor of China Reform magazine. With Bo already ousted, Xi mainly needs to ensure that he does not cause any more trouble during the next 10 years while Xi heads the party.
“There is already consensus in the party to ‘protect’ Bo to some degree,” Li said. “Among the princelings I know, a majority of them support or are sympathetic to Bo. Xi Jinping doesn’t want to lose their support.”
One unanswered question is whether Gu, who received a suspended death sentence last year, will testify against her husband at Thursday’s trial. Friends close to Gu’s family, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive private matters, have described some rifts within her family and Bo’s in recent months. At various points, relatives have tried to hire different lawyers to represent Bo, many of whom were prevented by the government from meeting Bo or representing him.
One close associate of Bo’s family said they are now concerned about who among them will be approved to attend the trial.
Zhang Jie and Li Qi contributed to this report.