Disgraced populist politician Bo Xilai went on trial Thursday accused of abuse of power and netting more than $4 million in bribery and embezzlement, marking the ruling Communist Party's attempts to put to rest one of China's most lurid political scandals in decades.
Bo entered the courthouse under police escort in the eastern city of Jinan, the court said, in closely choreographed proceedings held under extremely tight security, with police sealing off nearby roads with red and yellow traffic barriers. Though kept far away from the media, some of Bo's supporters gathered outside the perimeter, intermittently yelling out, "He served the people!" and "He was a good cadre!"
Once the powerful party boss in the megacity of Chongqing, the charismatic Bo became the most senior leader to fall from power in years after revelations emerged early last year that his wife had killed a British businessman.
Bo's removal marked China's biggest upheaval in the leadership since the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989. Bo's revival of the symbolism of Mao Zedong's radical era had unnerved China's previous leadership, although current leader Xi Jinping, installed last fall, has appeared keen to adopt his own brand of Mao-like tactics.
Five of Bo's relatives attended the trial, the Jinan Intermediate People's Court said in a stream of posts on its Sina Weibo microblog, though the relatives were not identified. The postings were a rare display of openness for a high-profile political trial in China. Journalists from foreign media outlets were kept from the courtroom, but the court said 19 reporters were among the 110 people attending the trial.
"All the seats are filled and all is in good order," the court said.
The scandal was triggered last year when Bo's police chief, a top aide, fled to a U.S. consulate in a neighboring city, an event that embarrassed the party's leadership ahead of a key political transition. It would later emerge that the police chief had evidence of the Briton's murder in late 2011, making the Bo family an international diplomatic liability for the leadership.
The charges against Bo, analysts have said, appear carefully calibrated to lay blame on the self-serving actions of Bo and his family and provide enough culpability to end his political career, while avoiding broader allegations that could expose the impunity with which top Chinese officials are believed to operate before they fall from favor.
Prosecutors accused Bo of accepting bribes amounting to more than 20 million yuan ($3.3 million) when he was posted to the eastern city of Dalian from 1999 to 2012. They said he took the bribes either directly, through his wife, or through his son, Bo Guagua, from two entities: Dalian International Development Corp. Ltd and Dalian Shide Group Ltd, according to the court's reports of the proceedings.
He also was accused of embezzling 5 million yuan ($820,000) from a public construction project in a transaction that also involved his wife.
Additionally he was charged with abuse of power related to his alleged attempts in Chongqing to block an investigation Heywood's murder in late 2011, the court said.
A verdict of guilt is all but assured, because the outcome of such trials involving high-profile politicians in China are usually decided by backroom negotiations by politicians and handed down by the court. Bo's downfall also has been widely perceived as the result of his defeat in party infighting ahead of China's once-a-decade leadership transition last fall.
"Bo Xilai's faction fell out of grace during the power struggle among top leaders," said Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent human rights lawyer based in Beijing. "In reality, it does not matter what he is charged with ... because this is it is a political trial, which does not represent the spirit of law."
Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, confessed to killing Neil Heywood and was handed a suspended death sentence last year that will likely be commuted to life imprisonment. Bo's aide, Wang Lijun, was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for making his thwarted defection bid and helping Gu cover up the murder.
Outside the court, one man held up a poster of Mao and said "What I support is not Bo Xilai the individual, but his ideas on sharing wealth," before police pushed him away in attempts to prevent reporters from communicating with onlookers.
That Bo enjoys residual popularity among some of the Chinese public underscores how effective the media-savvy politician was in portraying himself as a man of the people. He spoke often of tackling the burgeoning income inequality gap, and introduced housing and other social policies in Chongqing that made him beloved by the poor.
Bo mobilized people in Chongqing to sing communist anthems, campaigns that resonated with people who've felt increasingly alienated from a party and government seen as corrupt and morally bankrupt.
"Bo tapped into these ideas with the 'red songs,' and invoked a certain kind of camaraderie and unity that has been missing," said Dali Yang, head of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing. "He created in some way a moral universe that made people feel much more confident and hopeful in some ways, certainly in Chongqing."
Bo's Communist revival efforts had alarmed the consensus-minded elite in China's previous administration who were wary of the violent excesses of the Mao era and of any one politician gaining prominence. Nevertheless, the administration of current leader Xi has adopted hardline, Mao-like tactics including tight clampdowns on dissidents and the media and an ideological campaign urging cadres to purify themselves of corruption.
Analysts have noted that none of the charges against Bo appear to involve the widespread human rights abuses alleged to have been carried out during his unfettered rule as Chongqing party chief, including during his much-publicized crackdown on the city's mafia gangs.
Jinan resident Yu Ming, 46, questioned whether the trial would bring greater openness in China.
"The real questions are, did he not trample the law? Did he not violate human rights? We shouldn't just look at corruption alone," Yu said. "What we are more concerned about is, after the Bo Xilai case is over, what direction will China go in? Will we have human rights? Will we have the right to vote?"