CHONGQING, China (Reuters) - China’s leadership faced continued resistance on Friday in its efforts to hand down final judgment against deposed politician Bo Xilai, despite moving swiftly to wrap up a murder charge against his wife who now risks the death penalty.
Bo Xilai, once a contender for the top rungs of power, and his wife have been disgraced in the nation’s biggest political scandal in two decades, which centers on the murder in China of a British businessman who had been a close family friend.
Bo has not been implicated in the murder but has been accused of breaching internal party discipline, sometimes code for corruption.
On Thursday, China charged Bo’s glamorous wife, Gu Kailai, with poisoning expatriate Neil Heywood last year in a proceeding that lawyers expect to end swiftly with a conviction and lead to a life sentence or possibly her execution by lethal injection. A lawyer employed by Gu’s family has said the trial will likely start early next month.
However, shutting the door on the political case against Bo, who still faces party disciplinary proceedings, could prove to be much more difficult, given the former party boss of Chongqing city retains some strong support at the party’s grass roots.
Despite months of unanswered allegations against the Bo family from police and party sources, Bo’s leftist supporters are uncowed and see the case as political revenge, said Zhang Hongliang, an influential far-left intellectual in Beijing.
“You ask why do so many Chinese leftists welcomed the policies Bo Xilai implemented in Chongqing. It’s simple: because those policies were welcomed by the vast majority of ordinary people,” Zhang said in an email exchange this week.
“Whatever personal problems Bo Xilai might have, that’s a completely different matter than his policies in Chongqing,” he said in comments emailed a day before Gu’s indictment.
In Chongqing on Friday, a sprawling metropolis of around 30 million people where Bo cast himself as a populist dedicated to fighting crime and helping the poor, vocal support was still easy to find despite his removal from all party posts in April.
All of Chongqing’s newspapers carried the official announcement of Gu’s murder indictment on their front pages, and one newspaper hawker said many residents were disbelieving.
“I can tell you that 100 percent of ordinary people or at least 95 percent, support Bo Xilai,” said the hawker, who asked only to be cited by his surname, Zhao, “so I can speak my mind.”
“He did many good things for people in Chongqing and gave us a sense of safety,” said Zhao, who added that he and his friends were skeptical about the charges brought against Gu.
The case against Bo is troubling for Beijing because it has opened ideological fissures in the party, with Bo drawing support from the left-wing for his efforts in Chongqing to narrow the yawning division between China’s poor and well-off.
It also comes at a time when Beijing is struggling to pull off a once-in-a-decade leadership transition -- a process that at one time seemed likely to elevate Bo, possibly as far as the innermost core of power -- the Politburo Standing Committee.
In his ambitious campaign for elevation, Bo sought to revive the era of Mao Zedong, encouraging “red” choirs and launching an anti-crime crackdown whose sometimes brutal effectiveness reminded critics of earlier, Maoist mobilizations.
Wang Zhengxu, a senior research fellow at University of Nottingham’s School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, believes Beijing will take its time with the Bo case and could hold it over until after the new leadership is unveiled at the party’s 18th national congress, to be held later this year.
“I don’t think they will have a formal conclusion for Bo Xilai before the party congress,” he said, adding that he did not believe the case would affect the congress at all.
“Maybe they will have an announcement that Bo will be removed from the party, but I think formal charges, including legal charges, will come much later.”
Both Bo and Gu have been in detention since Beijing first announced the murder allegation against Gu and the unspecified “disciplinary violations” against Bo in April. At the time, Bo was stripped of all party positions. Neither he nor his wife have been able to publicly comment on the allegations.
Gu and a family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, have been charged with poisoning Heywood, with the official Xinhua news agency saying Gu had killed because she believed Heywood was threatening her son, Bo Guagua, a graduate of Oxford and Harvard universities.
Gu’s trial is likely to start on August 7 or 8 in Hefei, a city in eastern China, far from Chongqing -- a decision in keeping with a tradition of holding sensitive politically charged trials in a different judicial region.
In a further wrinkle, Shen Zhigeng, a lawyer who had been employed by Gu’s family, told Reuters that he was not her defense attorney.
“She will be represented by another lawyer recommended by the local lawyer’s association,” he added. He declined to explain why Gu did not use him as her lawyer.
However, the trial is likely to attract an international spotlight like few others, because the murder victim and a key witness are both Westerners. French witness Patrick Henri Devillers, 52, another former friend of the Bo family, recently flew to China from his home in Cambodia to help investigators.
A British embassy spokesman said diplomats had requested access to the trial and were awaiting a decision.
The French embassy could not immediately be reached for comment.
China’s party-run judiciary is almost certain to convict Gu and Zhang over the murder in a hearing closed to the public, though it was unclear if Beijing would make some effort to make these proceedings more accessible than normal.
To some of Bo’s supporters in Chongqing, though, the trial is a sideshow to the main battle over Bo’s political legacy.
“We all love Bo Xilai. We feel that it’s about a political struggle,” said Yu Kun, a billboard advertising salesman in his early 30s as he pointed to an unfinished, ultra-modern opera house and science museum on the other side of the mud-brown Yangtze River as evidence of Bo’s ability and swollen ambitions.
Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby, Ben Blanchard, Michael Martina Sui-Lee Wee; Writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Jeremy Laurence