BEIJING — China formally charged disgraced Communist Party regional kingpin Bo Xilai on Thursday with corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported, with the long-awaited trial expected to get underway soon.
Bo’s fall from grace has become one of the most embarrassing scandals to hit the Communist Party in decades, and new President Xi Jinping has been facing internal pressure to put the case behind him and address the economic and social challenges facing the party.
It had proved a tough challenge for the new Chinese president. Bo, who has not been seen in public since he was fired as party boss of the city of Chongqing in March 2012, had been reluctant to cooperate and had not accepted the charges against him, lawyers and journalists said. The party apparently considered a confrontational public trial too risky, and powerful factions within it had been uneasy about punishing Bo too severely.
Although trial outcomes in China are routinely determined in advance by the party, a damaging standoff had developed in Bo’s case, according to party watchers. Finally, though, a deal appears to have been struck.
Xinhua said the charges of bribery, corruption and abuse of power were brought to court in the city of Jinan in China’s eastern Shandong province, where the trial will take place.
Bo took advantage of his position as a civil servant to seek profits for others and accepted “an extremely large amount” of money and properties, the indictment paper said, according to Xinhua. He also embezzled a huge amount of public money, abused his power and seriously harmed the interests of the state and people, it said. Bo has been informed of his legal rights and interviewed by prosecutors, Xinhua reported.
Just two days earlier, party officials in Chongqing were told that Bo would be charged with receiving more than $3.25 million in bribes and embezzling $815,000, said lawyers and journalists who spoke to people present at the meeting.
Under Chinese legal procedures, indictment papers should be delivered to the defendant at least 10 days before a trial opens, said lawyer Li Xiaolin, who is close to Bo’s family. Based on precedent, the trial could begin in the first half of August, he said.
This month, senior party officials had warned that disunity was “not in anyone’s interest,” said Zhang Lifan, a prominent historian. Shortly after, former president Jiang Zemin, who was seen as close to Bo, praised Xi’s leadership during a rare public appearance. That suggested an agreement over Bo had been reached within the party, Zhang said.
Bo, who employed the rhetoric of conservative Communist revival but allowed private entrepreneurs free rein, was a rising star in regional Chinese politics who made no secret of his national ambitions. But he fell from grace last year after his police chief sought refuge at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu and leveled several dramatic accusations against his former boss.
Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was subsequently convicted of the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood and given a suspended death sentence. In September, Bo was expelled from the party and accused of abusing his office, accepting bribes — directly, as well as through family members — having “improper relationships with a number of women” and playing a role in the murder plot.
The charges he now faces appear milder, involving a comparatively modest amount of money, experts said. “It seems they have reached a settlement for a jail term of around 17 or 18 years,” said Willy Lam, a political expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Last month, former railways minister Liu Zhijun, who was below Bo in the Communist Party hierarchy, was convicted of taking bribes worth $10.5 million and given a suspended death sentence. But Lam said there was an unwritten rule within the party elite that Politburo members, such as Bo, would never be given a death sentence, even a suspended one. Bo, who has had some heart problems while in jail, would probably serve much of his sentence under house arrest, Lam said.
The Communist Party is keen to get the case out of the way before an important plenum meeting in the fall, at which Xi is expected to outline his plans to reform the country’s economy and address a slowdown in growth. The court appearance has been billed as China’s “trial of the century,” but the party is likely to do everything in its power to ensure that it passes off uneventfully and that as little dirty linen is aired as possible.
“If this was to drag on any longer, it would damage Xi Jinping’s image as someone who can unite different factions within the party and foster a facade of unity,” Lam said. “He needs to show senior party leaders he can do it in a very orderly, prearranged fashion.”