Where's Bo Xilai? Chinese wait – and wait – for scandal-laced trial to begin.

China's leaders have reason to tread carefully: The fallen political star still has influential fans – and his trial could pose an uncomfortable challenge to President Xi's authority.

Jason Lee/REUTERS/File
China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai looks on during a meeting at the annual session of China's parliament, the National People's Congress, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, in this 2010 file picture.

For nearly three weeks, China has been waiting for the curtain to go up on the final act of the country’s most scandalous political drama since the Gang of Four were put on trial 40 years ago.

But the trial of Bo Xilai, for reasons the government does not elucidate, has yet to start.

It has been 16 months since Mr. Bo, who once ruled the giant city of Chongqing in southwestern China, disappeared into custody after his police chief told US diplomats that his wife had murdered a British businessman.

It has been 10 months since Bo was formally expelled from the ruling Communist Party, to whose topmost heights he had once aspired, and subjected to criminal investigation for corruption.

It has been three weeks since he was formally indicted on charges of taking bribes, embezzling funds, and abuse of power, and assigned for trial at the Intermediate People’s Court in Jinan, the capital of the eastern province of Shandong.

What's at stake?

But the political ramifications of Bo’s case, the lurid details of which brought shame on the Communist Party and shredded its facade of unity, still appear to be complicating the prospects for a trial.

At stake is not Bo’s guilt or innocence; in China, more than 99 percent of defendants are found guilty and the verdict in such a politically sensitive case is a foregone conclusion.

But Bo, once a contender for the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Communist Party Politburo, remains popular in some influential quarters. His mix of self-promotion, neo-Maoist populism and state-directed economic development won many admirers among left-leaning conservatives.

That, says Zhang Lifan, a historian and independent political analyst in Beijing, means that “this is a political trial, not a judicial one.”

And that, in turn, means that President Xi Jinping’s authority is at stake, along with his ability to introduce economic reforms he says are essential to China’s future growth.

“If the trial goes smoothly, if Bo Xilai behaves himself in court and if his supporters don’t stage big protests, that will help endorse the government’s claim that it can fix things,” says Zhang Jian, a professor of Politics at Peking University.

“It is taking a long time for the government to be sure that everything is under control,” Mr. Zhang adds.

The importance of the trial, says Kerry Brown, a China analyst at the University of Sydney, is that “it draws a line under everything that has happened over the last 18 months, and no more questions will be asked within the party.”

Harnessing harmony

The authorities are doing everything possible to ensure that the trial goes smoothly. A journalist was detained last week for encouraging readers of his blog to go to Jinan in support of Bo; newspapers have been ordered to print only articles from the state-run Xinhua news agency about Bo’s case; the lawyer whom Bo’s sister retained to represent him has been banned from the court room.

“There is no sign that the authorities are prepared to follow the basic principles of due process to try this case,” says He Weifang, a legal scholar who once denounced Bo’s own abuse of the law to jail his enemies in Chongqing.

But even if the trial is closed to outsiders, lasts just a day or so, and hears only written testimony rather than live witnesses, as lawyers predict, the government cannot countenance any embarrassing lack of cooperation from Bo.

“If Bo Xilai does not accept the charges, the trial cannot start,” says Wu Qiang, who teaches politics at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “There has to be a deal.”

The announcement three weeks ago that charges had been filed suggested to most observers that such a deal had indeed been reached.

What the corruption charges highlight

No official figure was put on Bo’s alleged illicit earnings but informed reports put them at just 25 million RMB, a little over $4 million, which is less than half what former Railways Minister Liu Zhijun was jailed last month for taking.

The corruption charges all appear to date back to the 1990s, when Bo was mayor of the coastal city of Dalian and then Communist Party secretary for the province of Liaoning. There is no suggestion that Bo was an accessory in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, for which Bo’s wife was given a suspended death sentence last August.

The pallid nature of the charges compared with Politburo accusations last September that Bo had maintained “improper sexual relations with a number of women,” and bore “major responsibility” in the Heywood murder case, suits both Bo and the party.

“They don’t want things to be too sensational,” says Mr. Brown. “They need only as much evidence as will bury the guy for good.” Too much detail, adds Zhang Lifan, “might trigger people’s imagination about how much other Politburo and Standing Committee members might make from corruption.”

But the trial will still be embarrassing in the public’s eye, and divisive within Communist Party ranks, and that could explain the delay, suggests Dr. Wu. “Nobody really wants this trial,” he says. “It’s just a lot of trouble for everyone.” 

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