Former High-Profile Chinese Politician Heads To Court

Bo Xilai, the disgraced senior Chinese politician, on trial Thursday. China's leadership hopes Bo's trial will bring an end to the country's biggest political scandal in decades, but observers say few of the charges he will face in court relate to the most embarrassing revelations that have emerged in the case.

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A flamboyant politician in China, once considered a presidential contender, will go on trial in the eastern city of Jinan tomorrow. Bo Xilai is one of the highest ranking Communist Party officials to face trial in decades. Many Chinese believe he's being prosecuted for corruption because he lost an internal power struggle.

But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Jinan, the root causes of Bo's dramatic downfall are unlikely to come out in court.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: It's clear from all the onlookers, police and journalists in front of the courthouse that this is no ordinary trial. Bo is accused of corruption, taking bribes and abuse of power. But veteran defense lawyer Zhang Sizhi(ph) says that Bo's fate has already been decided at the highest levels of power.

ZHANG SIZHI: (Through Translator) Who's deciding this case? Is it the court in Jinan? Of course not. The case is being tried for there but the verdict has been written in Beijing, by the Politburo standing committee's members. For sure, the people who finally sign off on it will be President Xi Jinping and those guys.

KUHN: It's been nearly a year and a half since Bo Xilai was sacked as party boss of the southwestern city of Chongqing. Last year, his wife, Gu Kailai, was jailed for the murder of a family associate, the British businessman Neil Heywood. Zhang said it looks like Bo's trial will skirt the key issue of his involvement in the death of Heywood.

SIZHI: (Through translator) If the Heywood case, or rather the Gu Kailai case, were tried transparently, it is impossible that it could have nothing to do with Bo Xilai.

KUHN: Chinese state media have reported that Gu confessed to poisoning Heywood, but defense lawyer Zhang says that key evidence was missing in the Heywood case. For example, the murder weapon. Gu Kailai reportedly poured a soy sauce bottle full of poison into Heywood's mouth when he was drunk.

SIZHI: (Through translator) So has anyone produced the soy sauce bottle? We don't know. It said that there was poison in the bottle. If so, where did it come from?

KUHN: In other words, we know that Neil Heywood is dead but that's about it. Bao Tong has seen his share of political intrigues. He's the former secretary of the late premier, Zhao Ziyang. Bao argues that Heywood's death, by itself, might not have caused Bo's downfall, but when his police chief, Wang Lijun, suggest to Bo that his wife had murdered Heywood, Bo slapped him in the face.

Wang then ran to the nearest American consulate in an unsuccessful bid for asylum.

BAO TONG: (Through translator) If he had not slapped Wang Lijun's face and if Wang Lijun had not run to the American consulate, nobody would know about this whole thing. In this case, Bo Xilai would very likely become one of the seven or nine members of the Politburo's standing committee.

KUHN: But once Wang walked into that consulate, the mess could no longer be covered up. In a sense, though, the logic of Bo's assent is just as important as that of his downfall. Both Bo Xilai and President Xi Jinping are the sons of revolutionary comrades of Chairman Mao. Bao says that despite the language of Communist revolution, their logic is basically that of dynastic conquest and hereditary rule.

TONG: (Through translator) From the second generation to the third, fourth and fifth generations, power can be passed on like this forever. This is called never changing our color, this is called capturing the mountains and rivers and holding onto them.

KUHN: Bao believes that just before his downfall, Bo had all but secured himself a place in the top leadership. Bo launched an anticrime drive and a Maoist cultural revival that proved quite popular with residents of Chongqing. More importantly, six out of nine officials on the ruling Politburo standing committee, including Xi Jinping, had personally visited the city and endorsed Bo's methods.

But with that one slap of his police chief's face, Bao says, Bo knocked himself out of the running for the leadership of China. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jinan, China.

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