WHEN a court in a coastal province renders its verdict against disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai in a trial that appears imminent, it could also decide the pace of economic reforms planned by the new government of president Xi Jinping.
The ideological divides exposed last year by Bo’s extra-ordinary fall from power have, to a degree, hamstrung Mr Xi, forcing him to move more slowly than he may have wanted on an ambitious programme to rebalance the world’s second-largest economy.
They are, at least, part of the reason that political reform is not on the table now.
The tensions will persist long after the verdict, and may be exacerbated by the proceeding, sources said.
Senior Communist Party officials worry that Bo’s core constituency – conservative leftists as well as the economically dispossessed – will be inflamed by a harsh verdict: the death penalty or life in prison.
The risk is that Bo’s supporters could remain a brake on the reforms that favour private businesses and greater reliance on market forces.
“Bo Xilai still has many supporters and sympathisers in the party, the government and the military,” said a party source, requesting anonymity.
Bo will almost certainly be convicted by the Intermediate People’s Court in Jinan, capital of the eastern province of Shandong.
He is charged with corruption, abuse of power and taking bribes – the country’s biggest political scandal since the 1976 show trial of Mao Zedong’s widow and her Gang of Four at the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Last year, Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was jailed for the killing of Briton Neil Heywood.
Mr Heywood had died in Chongqing the previous year, and Bo was suspected of trying to cover up the murder.
For Mr Xi, the Bo trial is a no-win proposition. A relatively lenient sentence, should one come, would anger reform-minded liberals.
“It will be difficult to please both factions regardless of how heavy or light the sentence is,” a source with ties to the leadership said.
In a sign of just how deep the ideological rift runs, a recent commentary in state news agency Xinhua’s online edition called for officials and party members to close ranks.
The commentary, published the day Bo was indicted last month, urged officials to “resolutely uphold the central (government’s) decision, not to be afraid, shrink or hesitate once the order (verdict) is out the door”.
China’s leaders want the trial done and soon, so they can move on and tackle bigger issues.
“They want to get this out of the way as quickly as possible so they can put it behind them and achieve a new measure of unity,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based political commentator and historian.