Bo Xilai scandal: How will China deal with ex-Chongqing chief?

Bo Xilai at People's Congress in Beijing, 9 March Bo Xilai was a charismatic populist - with powerful enemies

Bo Xilai was one of China's most powerful men, but his wife has now been charged with murder, and his fall from grace appears complete. The BBC's John Sudworth in Shanghai considers how China is likely to deal with the former Chongqing party chief.

So we are now much clearer about at least half of the story.

The announcement of the murder charge is confirmation that the Chinese authorities think British businessman Neil Heywood was poisoned to death at the hands of Gu Kailai.

And her conviction it seems is a foregone conclusion.

"The evidence is irrefutable and substantial," the state run news agency Xinhua reported.

She is almost certainly facing a long spell in prison, possibly even the death penalty.

But the other, perhaps more interesting, half of the story remains unclear.

Until this murky case prompted his downfall, Gu Kailai's husband Bo Xilai was one of China's most powerful politicians, and the main reason why there has been so much interest.

What happens to him next will be much more revealing about the way the country's leadership intends to deal with the political fallout.

Echoes of Mao era

There are two main possibilities.

Firstly, that Bo Xilai will be spared from the most serious allegations.

TIMELINE: BO XILAI SCANDAL

  • 2 Feb: Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun is demoted
  • 6 Feb: Mr Wang flees to the US consulate
  • 15 Mar: Bo Xilai removed from his post in Chongqing
  • 20 Mar: Rumours connect Mr Bo to Neil Heywood's death
  • 10 Apr: Mr Bo suspended from party posts; his wife Gu Kailai investigated over Mr Heywood's death
  • 26 July: Gu Kailai and Bo family employee Zhang Xiaojun are charged with killing Mr Heywood

That may be because he is innocent and that the alleged police cover-up of Neil Heywood's death was borne out of blind loyalty rather than specific instructions from Mr Bo.

But if he was implicated in aiding and abetting this crime in any way, one theory goes that he would escape criminal censure because the public airing of such dirty laundry would risk tainting the Communist Party itself.

And party bosses are also aware that Mr Bo enjoys a level of popular support and still has some influential backers.

If this view is correct, it would seem that Gu Kailai is being made something of a scapegoat.

And some have suggested that lining her up as the evil scheming wife who brings down her husband would fit a common Chinese narrative.

Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing, for example, was famously ascribed much of the blame for the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

There are clues that the official version of the death of Neil Heywood may indeed pan out this way, with its reporting still being managed carefully in the Chinese media.

Despite the delay in opening the investigation in the first place, it is already being portrayed as a triumph of Chinese justice and proof that even the powerful get their comeuppance in the end.

An editorial in the Global Times states matter of factly: "This is a criminal case and the public should see it as one."

Bo's populism

But there is another view that, in the coming weeks and months, we may yet see Mr Bo having the book thrown at him too.

Gu Kailai pictured in 2007 Gu Kailai was a prominent lawyer in Chongqing before the scandal

Some have suggested that the very reason this case has come to light is precisely because Mr Bo has found himself on the losing side of a deep ideological divide at the heart of the communist leadership.

So if he avoids being charged, his opponents will be well aware that the stage may be set for his comeback.

In support of this view, observers point to comments Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made the day before Mr Bo's suspension from his post.

In an apparent reference to the case, Mr Wen warned of the dangers of a return to the arbitrary and ruthless days of the Cultural Revolution.

While party secretary of Chongqing, Mr Bo was busy forging his own brand of political populism.

It was centred on two things - firstly a tough anti-corruption stance, for which it appears that he was willing to employ pretty ruthless tactics.

And secondly a revival of communist culture by promoting the public singing of traditional revolutionary songs.

The public liked the toughness and the nostalgia, and Mr Bo hoped this groundswell of support would carry him to a seat on the politburo standing committee later this year.

But it appears his politics may have been at odds with the more reforming mindset of political leaders like Mr Wen.

Still a comrade?

Some have suggested that Mr Wen and Mr Bo represent two sides of a bitter ideological feud over whether the best future for China lies in further opening up its economy and political system, or a return to a more authoritarian past.

Neil Heywood The authorities originally blamed Neil Heywood's death on alcohol

There is one further anecdote worthy of consideration.

The last occasion when someone as senior as Bo Xilai fell from grace was the case of Shanghai's former party boss Chen Liangyu.

On the same day as his sacking from all posts was announced by the official state media, the term "comrade" was dropped almost immediately.

He was referred to instead as a "thick neck" felled by the blade of anti-corruption.

But in Mr Bo's case the situation is a little different.

He continued to be referred to as a "comrade" in the People's Daily Chinese language editions until as late as 13 July, almost four months after his suspension.

It can be read either that he still has influential sympathisers within the party, or that they have now finally evaporated.

What is almost certain is that if Mr Bo's career is undone by the murder of a British businessman, it will not only be about the facts of the case, but because someone wants him out of the way.

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