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Bo and Gu on trial, in different ways

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
August 9, 2012 -- Updated 0648 GMT (1448 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bo Xilai's political career nose-dived since wife's arrest on murder charges
  • Gu Kailai accused of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood last November
  • Bo stripped of posts but still popular in Chongqing where he championed populist agenda
  • Analysts say Bo's downfall may owe more to his political policies than wife's alleged actions

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- In the high-stakes world of Communist Party politics, it sometimes takes a politician only one wrong move to slide from fame to shame.

That may be the fate awaiting Bo Xilai.

Until last April, he was already an influential -- and controversial -- member of the Communist Party's politburo, the elite group of 25 men who run China.

Bo, 63, was the party chief of Chongqing, a bustling southwestern metropolis. He was widely expected to get into the Politburo's nine-member standing committee -- the country's supreme decision-making body -- later this year, when the Communist Party convenes for its once-in-a-decade leadership change.

Politician's wife charged with murder

But Bo's career has since nose-dived.

Trying to gain access to Gu Kailai trial

Timeline: Bo Xilai's fall from grace

Who is Gu Kailai?
Bo Xilai's son responds
Politician's wife charged with murder
Will scandal bring change to China?
Evan Osnos on corruption in China
Brother of Bo Xilai resigns

In April, he was sacked from all his top Communist Party posts, detained and accused of an unspecified "serious breach of party regulations."

This week his wife Gu Kailai and family aide Zhang Xiaojun are going on trial, accused of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood.

"We're looking at probably the most powerful politburo member and his wife in such a serious situation before a major party congress that is supposed to have a leadership transition," explained Wenran Jiang, a political science professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. "So the significance of the criminal case itself against Bo Xilai's wife has gone beyond simply a murder of a foreigner."

If Gu Kailai is convicted, Jiang opined, "it would mean the end of Bo Xilai's political life."

Gu Kailai: China's 'Jackie Kennedy'

Bo has his share of critics who will be pleased to see his downfall.

Critics dismissed the tall and photogenic leader, claiming that he acted like an authoritarian strongman, resorting to extra-legal means in dealing with gangsters and political enemies.

Others ridiculed him as a "hypocrite" who mouthed populist, pro-poor views while his family allegedly enjoyed luxurious and privileged lives.

Bo did enjoy a privileged pedigree.

Read more: Bo Xilai: From rising star to scandal

He is a "taizidang" or "princeling"-- sons and daughters of revolutionary veterans who still wield special influence. He has close connections in the party, the government and the army.

Over the years, Bo has also created a much-talked-about albeit controversial record in Dalian, where he served as city mayor, and in Chongqing, where he pioneered what some have hailed as the "Chongqing Model."

"I think Bo Xilai is seen as too assertive, too aggressive and maybe just too smart for people of his same rank," said Jiang.

His downfall, Jiang added, may be more about what he did in Chongqing, which included pushing a populist agenda.

"Some of the policies he carried out in Chongqing are, in Beijing, perceived as reform-orientated policies against the status quo, and the status quo now is the widening gap between the rich and the poor," he said.

"China is going toward a direction of more polarization, more inequality. Some of the policies Bo pushed through -- disregarding his personal views, personal conduct and misconduct -- were popular among certain segments. If you talk to people in Chongqing or Dalian, he is still popular today."

Read more: Why the Gu trial is important

Bo and his wife have not been seen or heard from since March and are unreachable for comment. However, when the scandal first broke earlier this year, Bo denied any wrongdoing and accused critics of slinging mud at the family for political reasons.

His dismissal, political analysts say, hints at cracks in the facade of unity and harmony in the Communist Party.

To the outside world, China appears like a massive monolith, a top-down command structure rigidly ruled by the Communist Party.

Far from it, analysts say.

Following three decades of economic reform, China is now a mix of wealth creation, regional rivalries and ethnic tensions, with a deep divide between the rich and poor.

Deng Xiaoping's much-vaunted reform, launched in 1979, has eroded the tight control of the Communist Party. It has also undermined the socialist ideology that gave it legitimacy, analysts say.

At the outset, Deng famously told the Chinese to look out for themselves and seek a better life.

In recent years, millions have dramatically bettered their lives.

The significance of the criminal case itself against Bo Xilai's wife has gone beyond simply a murder of a foreigner.
Wenran Jiang, University of Alberta

Still, hundreds of millions believe they have been left behind by China's breakneck pace of economic growth.

Disparities in income have never been wider.

Now, there is a raft of social, political and economic problems. Crime is rising in many Chinese cities. And one issue that makes the Chinese most angry is rampant corruption.

Since many in China are seeking to make money, the result is widespread nepotism, influence-peddling, bribes, ostentatious spending and misuse of public funds.

Yet leaders face the dilemma of having to demonstrate their resolve in curbing corruption while not tarnishing the Communist Party's image and threatening its legitimacy.

If the anti-graft campaign goes too far, analysts say, the party's image is tarnished and the stability of the leadership could be jeopardized.

One pundit puts it succinctly: "If you push anti-corruption through to the end, the Communist Party will die. If you don't, the country will die."

Some critics are no longer afraid to air grievances to local and central leadership. In recent months, they have taken desperate measures to seek redress.

On July 28, thousands of people in the eastern Qidong city in Jiangsu Province gathered in front of the city hall. Defying the police, they broke into the building in protest against a project to build a wastewater pipeline. Angry that the project could pollute their environment, they ransacked the government offices and man-handled senior city officials.

This incident is the latest in a series of recent embarrassments for the Chinese government -- signs, analysts say, of a fragile system fraying at its seams.

Other domestic factors, including environmental damage and slowing economic growth, all require Beijing's urgent attention.

Do current leaders have the skill, ideas and toughness to deal with them?

University of Alberta's Wenran Jiang said: "Ten years ago, when Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao both came to power, what they first promised to the society was to fix some of the inequality issues. But ten years later, the issues have not gone away. Unless the new Party leadership can show that they can manage these problems, they will continue to face doubts from the general public."

China today has a few political and economic experiments underway, competing against each other.

With or without Bo Xilai, analysts say Beijing's leadership must find innovative and effective ways to govern a nation increasingly diverse and disunited after 30 years of reform.

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