China’s biggest political trial since Gang of Four

The trial of disgraced senior Chinese politician Bo Xilai will start on Thursday, when he will face charges of bribery, corruption and abuse of power in China’s most divisive and dramatic case in decades.

Bo Xilai will likely by tried in private and will probably be convicted. Picture: AP
Bo Xilai will likely by tried in private and will probably be convicted. Picture: AP

The long-awaited trial of Bo, 64, a “princeling” son of a late vice premier who is still popular with conservatives and the disaffected, will be the country’s highest-profile hearing since the 1976 downfall of Mao Zedong’s widow, Jiang Qing, and her Gang of Four at the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, and his estranged police chief, Wang Lijun, have both been jailed over the scandal stemming from the November 2011 murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in the south-western city of Chongqing, where Bo was Communist Party boss.

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Bo’s trial will open at the Intermediate People’s Court in Jinan, capital of the eastern coastal province of Shandong, at 8:30 am local time on Thursday, state news agency Xinhua said in a terse report yesterday. It gave no further details.

It is almost certain Bo will be convicted as China’s prosecutors and judges are controlled by the ruling Communist Party, and he could theoretically be sentenced to death.

“I hope he does not get the death penalty, as this is a method of punishment we should be using less off. But I would expect a strong punishment,” said Li Zhuang, a lawyer and prominent opponent of Bo during his time as Chongqing party boss.

How Bo’s case is handled will be a test of newly installed president Xi Jinping’s steel in the battle against deeply ingrained corruption and also show how he has been able to stamp his authority on the party, which he leads.

Mr Xi has vowed to fight both “tigers” and “flies” – in other words people at every level of the party – as he combats corruption so serious that he has warned it threatens the party’s very survival.

Bo, a former commerce minister, used his post as party boss of Chongqing to cast the sprawling, haze-covered municipality into a showcase for his mix of populist policies and bold spending plans that won support from left-wingers yearning for a charismatic leader.

Bo’s former police chief, Wang, had spearheaded a controversial drive against organised crime, a prominent plank in Bo’s barely concealed campaign to join the top ranks of the party.

Censors this weekend appeared to relax the normally tight controls on discussing the trial on China’s Sina Weibo microblogging service, though opinions were split.

“I don’t really believe anything about this case, and I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the bottom of it,” wrote one user.

“He had ruthless ambition like Hitler and had a talent for co-opting public opinion,” wrote another.

The trial will almost certainly be conducted behind closed doors, which will fuel the suspicions of many that Bo is simply a victim of elite infighting.

Bao Tong, the most senior government official jailed over the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, urged the government to grant Bo an open and fair trial. ”.

Mr Bao also criticised the authorities for detaining a supporter of Bo and preventing a family-appointed lawyer from representing Bo.

“This means that justice is not impartial, justice is only playacting,” Bao said earlier this month. “Now the programme has been prepared, the director is there, the actors have rehearsed. We’re just waiting for the performance.”