China charged disgraced senior politician Bo Xilai with bribery, abuse of power and corruption on Thursday, paving the way for a trial seen by many as a test for legal reform and President Xi Jinping’s commitment to combat corruption.
Bo, 64, could appear in a courtroom in the eastern city of Jinan in Shandong province within weeks, capping the country’s biggest political scandal since the 1976 downfall of the Gang of Four at the end of the Cultural Revolution. He has not been seen in public for 17 months.
Xi, who formally took power in March, will be eager to put the Bo scandal behind him and have unstinted support from the Communist Party as he embarks on an ambitious rebalancing of the world’s second-largest economy and cracks down on corruption among senior officials.
But the outcome of the trial of Bo, a charismatic and well-loved leader to some and a power-hungry politician to others, could sharpen rifts.
Bo committed serious crimes and will be indicted on the charges of bribery, embezzlement and power abuse, state news agency Xinhua quoted the indictment as saying. He had been informed of his legal rights and interviewed by prosecutors, it said.
Bo, as a civil servant, took advantage of his position to seek profits for others and accepted an “extremely large amount” of money and properties, Xinhua said.
The sight of Bo in the dock will be cheered by many liberals, worried that his frequent paeans to Mao Zedong could return China to the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, but frustrate leftists and supporters of his crackdown on crime, who suspect a conspiracy behind his downfall.
Bo is certain to be found guilty. His wife, Gu Kailai, and his former police chief, Wang Lijun, have both been jailed over the scandal, which stems from the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
The government in September last year accused Bo of corruption and of bending the law to hush up the murder.
China’s prosecutors and courts come under Communist Party control and they are unlikely to challenge the party’s previous accusations.
“For a case that is politically tinged like this, the possibility of getting a fair trial is slim,” said Chen Ziming, an independent political commentator in Beijing. “Basically it’s been decided from above, the courts below will just act in accordance with the instructions.”
But the government does appear concerned about the public reaction to Bo and any fallout, and Xinhua called on people to support the Communist Party’s decision.
“Often after problematic officials are rooted out, we see the media looking back wistfully at their time in office saying how they dedicated themselves to the people,” the agency said in a commentary about the charges against Bo. “Success may be success, but mistakes are mistakes.”
Xi however has shown no sign of any anxiety, appearing casual and relaxed during a tour of central Hubei province this week.
A source with direct knowledge of the case said Bo has had regular access to legal counsel and is likely to be able to have the lawyer of his choice.
Many analysts say it is unlikely he would receive the death penalty. They expect the court to hand down a suspended death sentence, which effectively means life in prison, although the term can be reduced to 15 or 20 years.
“It would be immensely controversial if they executed him, it’ll be inconsistent with Xi Jinping’s efforts to move people forward and unite people and calm things down,” Jerome Cohen, a law professor from New York University and an expert in Chinese law, said before the indictment.
But Xi will have a difficult time convincing people that the charges against Bo are justified, said Bo Zhiyue, a professor of Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore.
“All these charges are their excuses,” Bo said. “They apply to anybody in the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee. There are no exceptions.”
Prosecutors in Jinan indicted Bo, Xinhua said, meaning the trial will take place there.
Bo’s lawyers, Li Guifang and Wang Zhaofeng, did not respond to request for comment. Government and court officials in Jinan could not be reached.
About two dozen uniformed and plainclothes police officers hovered around the gates of the main courthouse in Jinan, but there were no signs that the trial was imminent.
Xinhua did not say when Bo’s trial will start. But according to Chinese law, charges must be served to the defendant and his or her lawyers at least 10 days before a trial begins.
On the streets of Jinan, there was little reaction to the impending trial.
“As an ordinary citizen, I very much hope Bo Xilai will not be treated as a high-ranking official, but as any other ordinary citizen who breaks the law,” said Wang Songxian, a 34 year-old resident.
TEST OF REFORM
Since becoming Communist Party boss in November, and president in March, Xi has made battling corruption a key objective of his administration, warning that the problem is so severe it could threaten the party’s survival.
Analysts say how the trial will be carried out will reflect the new government’s willingness to promote legal reform.
“If the trial is extremely cursory and raises more questions than answers, it will be a bad signal for legal reform and the role the party intends to give to the law,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“If someone is tried in a very suspicious manner, people will draw a conclusion that this was a political fight that this person lost and was disposed of.”
After his appointment as party chief of Chongqing in 2007, Bo, a former commerce minister, turned it into a showcase of revolution-inspired “red” culture and his policies for egalitarian, state-led growth. He also won national attention with a crackdown on organized crime.
His brash self-promotion irked some leaders. But his populist ways and crime clean-up were welcomed by many of Chongqing’s 30 million residents, as well as others who hoped that Bo could take his leftist-shaded policies nationwide.
Bo has been accused of receiving more than 20 million yuan ($3.26 million) in bribes and embezzling another 5 million yuan, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday. That is about a third of the amount the government accused former railways minister, Liu Zhijun, of accepting in bribes. Liu was given a suspended death sentence earlier this month.