BEIJING – Once high-flying politician Bo Xilai was indicted Thursday for bribery and abuse of power, Chinese state media said, following a scandal that exposed deep divisions at the highest levels of the country’s ruling Communist Party.
Bo, the former party chief of Chongqing, will be the highest-profile official to be put on trial in China in decades. He has not been seen in public for more than a year after being detained in connection with his wife’s murder of a British businessman and the flight of his right-hand man to a U.S. consulate, triggering a monumental political scandal.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the indictment was handed over Thursday by prosecutors to the intermediate court in the eastern city of Jinan, Shandong province. That indicates the trial will take place in the city soon. A source with direct knowledge of the case said the proceedings could begin in mid-August.
“The accused Bo Xilai . . . took advantage of the privileges of his office to gain benefits for others and illegally received money and items in extremely large amounts,” Xinhua quoted the indictment as saying.
It said Bo “embezzled an extremely large amount of public funds and abused his powers of office, causing heavy losses to the interests of the nation and the people in an extremely serious way.”
The charges carry a wide range of penalties depending on the severity and the willingness of Bo, once one of the 25 members of the ruling party’s Central Politburo, to cooperate with prosecutors. However, the use of the terms “extremely large amounts” and “extremely serious” in the indictment appear to portend a heavy sentence.
The last former Central Politburo member to be tried for corruption, Chen Liangyu, received an 18-year prison term in 2008.
News of the proceedings comes at a time when the Chinese Communist Party is trying to show it is cracking down on corruption and government waste. It has also had to manage the political rifts exposed by the downfall of Bo. The decision to oust such a high-ranking leader would have required tough backroom negotiations among top leaders.
The trial would be an easier final step after the harder task of defusing any backlash among Bo’s supporters, said David Goodman, a China expert at the University of Sydney. Holding the proceedings now would also allow leaders to draw a line under the scandal ahead of a key Communist Party plenum expected in the autumn.
“Politically it’s logical now to do this before the plenum in October so you’ve got a neatness about it,” Goodman said. “The most difficult parts were all done,” he said, adding that the trial would probably “be dealt with in a boring procedural way with as little drama as possible.”
Top party leaders said from the start that Bo would not receive special treatment and an editorial issued Thursday by the official China News Service reinforced the message that no official was above the law.
Bo’s indictment “shows the Chinese Communist Party’s resolute will and clear stand against corruption,” the editorial said. “It also tells the whole party and the entire society that . . . no matter who you are, no matter how high your ranking is, you will be seriously investigated and severely punished if you violate party discipline and state law.”
The scandal emerged last year ahead of a once-a-decade leadership transition in which Bo had been considered a candidate for the Politburo Standing Committee — China’s most powerful body.
His downfall was triggered after his police chief and right-hand man, Wang Lijun, fled to a U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, allegedly to seek asylum. Bo was detained a month later.
He had cultivated an unusually populist public image and led a high-profile anti-mafia campaign that resulted in scores of arrests but also allegations of torture against suspects. His approach won popular support but divided top leaders, some of whom felt wary about his leftist bent.
Bo’s wife was given a suspended death sentence last August for fatally poisoning businessman and family friend Neil Heywood. Bo was removed from his party and government posts, losing his legal immunity at the end of 2012. Official media said he had “borne major responsibility” for the murder of Heywood and had taken “massive” bribes and had indulged in inappropriate sexual relations with “multiple women.”