ONCE one of China’s highest-flying politicians, Bo Xilai, will find himself in a criminal dock on Thursday on trial for bribery and abuse of power in the country’s highest-profile prosecution in decades.
His downfall began when a British businessman was found dead in a hilltop hotel room. As the drama finally nears its conclusion, the Communist Party is touting it as proof of its intent to crack down on corruption.
The scandal—which saw Bo’s police chief flee to a US consulate and his wife convicted of murder—erupted in the buildup to a once-in-a-decade leadership handover that saw Xi Jinping elevated as communist chief in November.
Analysts say Bo’s revival of the trappings of Mao-era China—including mass concerts singing “red” songs—while party chief in the mega-city of Chongqing alarmed sections of China’s top leadership, who saw the campaigns as a brash return to a bygone era of strongman rule.
In Chongqing, winding roads lead to the Lijing Holiday hotel atop the forested Nanshan hill. In one of several villas with sweeping views of the sprawling city, Bo’s wife Gu Kailai is said to have poisoned her former business partner Neil Heywood in November 2011.
The hotel still sees a steady stream of wealthy visitors who dine in a rustic restaurant—but staff denied the existence of the room where court documents say the murder happened.
“There is no room 1605,” a hotel receptionist who declined to be named told Agence France-Presse. “I do not know what you are talking about.”
Bo, the “princeling” son of one of China’s most revered revolutionary generals, met Heywood when he was mayor of Dalian in the late 1990s.
An English teacher turned business consultant, Heywood cultivated an aristocratic air and became close to Bo as well as his wife, a high-flying lawyer.
He seemed the perfect person to guide their son Bo Guagua as he started studies at a preparatory school in Britain, before going on to Heywood’s alma mater of Harrow, and then Oxford and Harvard.
As his connections with Bo and Gu deepened, Heywood reportedly bought an expensive villa in Beijing, and a Jaguar sports car with the license plate “007”.
Bo’s family is said to have amassed immense wealth, owning property in France, Britain and the United States, and reports say Heywood helped invest millions overseas.
But as Gu became closer to Bo’s right-hand man Wang Lijun—a flamboyant martial-arts trained policeman who oversaw the politician’s mafia crackdown in Chongqing—Heywood’s relationship with her began to sour.
The two clashed over a business deal, according to the official account of Gu’s trial. And in a dingy hotel room she plied Heywood with alcohol before pouring a cyanide-based poison into his mouth, the court heard.
When Heywood’s body was discovered, he was diagnosed as having suffered a heart attack and quickly cremated.
But the scandal became public early last year after Bo fell out with Wang over the murder, slapping him in the face, according to the court account of Wang’s trial, and sacking him.
Shortly afterwards, Wang appeared at the door of the US consulate in the neighboring city of Chengdu in February 2012, offering stunned diplomats a raft of secrets.
A stand-off ensued before Wang was escorted to Beijing by a top Chinese security official, reportedly because he feared assassination.
As rumors of Bo’s imminent arrest began to swirl, he remained defiant, telling reporters in March last year that accusations against him were “sheer rubbish”.
“A few people have been pouring filth on Chongqing and me and my family,” he said.
But a terse announcement by China’s state news agency days later sealed his fate: Bo had been relieved of his post and faced an internal party investigation, spelling the end of his political career.
Even so, it has taken more than a year for him to come to court, reportedly as communist factions jostle over his fate.
Gu and Wang were convicted in carefully orchestrated trials, with Gu handed a suspended death sentence—usually commuted to life in prison—for Heywood’s murder in August, and Wang 15 years in jail for his role in its cover-up a month later.
Last month Bo was formally indicted on charges of bribery, graft and abuse of power.
Analysts say the trial in the eastern city of Jinan will be short and predictable, with a guilty plea virtually certain and a decades-long jail sentence to follow.
In a statement to the New York Times, the 25-year-old Bo Guagua said he had been denied contact with his parents for 18 months and warned that any horse-trading over his own well-being would mean the verdict against his father “will clearly carry no moral weight.” AFP