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One of the biggest criminal trials in China in decades opens tomorrow. Gu Kailai, the wife of the fallen Communist Party leader Bo Xilai, is accused of killing a British businessman. But her trial is about much more than murder.

As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, it's also about privilege, and it includes allegations of public corruption and plenty of palace intrigue.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The details of the murder case make for a sort of Communist Party film noir. The plot goes like this: Wife of ambitious Communist Party politician is accused of murdering a British businessman. Her powerful husband allegedly blocks the police investigation. And the police chief, fearing for his life, takes refuge in a U.S. consulate and implicates the wife in the killing.

But Gao Wenqian, a former Communist Party historian and human rights activist, says beyond those lurid details, this case is really about power.

GAO WENQIAN: (Through Translator) Obviously, this case is completely different from a common criminal homicide case. This is basically a political case.

LANGFITT: That's because the figure looming over it all is the accused husband, Bo Xilai. Bo is the son of a Communist Party revolutionary leader. In recent years, Bo led a Cultural Revolution-style campaign in China's biggest city, Chongqing. He encouraged people to sing Maoist songs like this one.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

LANGFITT: And reminiscent of past Communist purges, he jailed and confiscated the fortunes of local businesspeople he labeled mafia. Bo was running hard this year for a spot on the standing committee of the politburo, the party's ruling body.

DING XUELING: (Through Translator) Most members of the politburo saw Bo Xilai as a threat.

LANGFITT: Ding Xueling is a political sociologist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He says Bo was hoping to take over the security or propaganda arms of the party. Ding says other leaders feared he would use the power of either of those branches against them.

XUELING: (Through Translator) Either position would give him enormous resources to defeat people. You can order people to collect blackmail data against your potential rivals. It's very similar to the KGB in the former Soviet Union.

LANGFITT: So when Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun showed up at the U.S. Consulate in February and implicated Bo's wife in a murder, his opponents had what they needed. Bo remains in detention while the party decides his fate.

Bo's wife, Gu, is accused of poisoning a British businessman named Neil Heywood with the help of her butler. By some accounts, Heywood was helping the Bo family secretly transfer money overseas and got into a dispute over payment. Chinese state media says Heywood then threatened Gu's son, Bo Guagua, who he had earlier helped get into an exclusive British prep school.

Jin Zhong is the editor of Open, a political magazine in Hong Kong.

JIN ZHONG: (Through Translator) This case itself makes the Communist Party lose a lot of face. They will now use the trial to minimize the very negative impact on the party. They want to show this is done in an open and transparent manner.

LANGFITT: So far, there's not much sign of transparency. Gu has been denied access to her lawyers and is being forced to use local court-appointed ones. The government's New China News Service has all but convicted Gu, writing, quote, "The evidence is irrefutable and substantial."

JEROME COHEN: Well, they haven't shown any evidence. The government has made allegations.

LANGFITT: Jerome Cohen is a professor of law at New York University who's followed China's legal system for decades. He says Chinese trials bear no resemblance to American ones. For instance, defendants have no right to cross-examine witnesses. And judges decide cases on the instruction of political leaders. Cohen says Gu's trial, to be held in Central China's Anhui province, could be better. But a more open trial carries risks.

COHEN: The defendants might shout out something that they really believe in. The party is obsessed with control. Stability means the silence of anyone who might challenge party control.

LANGFITT: It so happens Gu Kailai is a lawyer herself. Years ago, she wrote that the Chinese legal system was better than the American one because it was more efficient. Quote, "It doesn't mince words," she wrote. Tomorrow, she may feel differently.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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