By Benjamin Kang Lim and Chris Buckley
BEIJING, May 25 (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao has demanded senior Communist Party officials stifle tensions over the ousting of ambitious politician Bo Xilai and show unity as they prepare for a change of leadership, sources briefed on recent meetings said.
Hu urged the party to close ranks at a meeting of about 200 officials early this month at a Beijing hotel, declaring the downfall of Bo - China's biggest political scandal in two decades - to be an "isolated case", the three sources said.
The sources' comments represent the first confirmation of speculation that Hu recently intervened to prevent a wider rift in the party and to resist pressure from some elements for a wider purge of the populist Bo's policies and supporters.
Bo, former party chief of Chongqing city, was suspended from the party's top ranks in April after his wife became a suspect in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. Before the scandal broke, Bo had been seen as a candidate to join China's new top leadership team to be unveiled this year.
"It's been settled that this will be dealt with as a criminal case, not a political case," said one of the sources, a retired official. "The central leadership wants to focus on ensuring a stable environment for the 18th Party Congress, so the guiding policy is to end all the rumours and contention."
The party congress, scheduled to be held late this year, will appoint a new generation of leaders. Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao will then step down from their government posts at the National People's Congress in early 2013, when Vice President Xi Jinping is likely to succeed Hu as president.
The sources, all with ties to senior party officials, spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid possible recriminations for speaking about internal party discussions.
Two of them said Hu had convened this month's meeting at the Jingxi Hotel, the party's heavily guarded conference hotel in western Beijing where leaders often hold secretive conclaves.
The meeting was part of a series of steps taken to shore up unity and advance preparations for the 18th Party Congress. Those steps included retired leaders, especially former president Jiang Zemin, giving their backing to Hu's position.
"Jiang said that if you have solid evidence that Gu Kailai committed murder and that Bo Xilai also committed major errors, then deal with it as an isolated criminal incident," said the retired official, paraphrasing a summary of Jiang's comments.
"There's already been too much instability. The overriding goal now must be a successful 18th Party Congress," the former official said, paraphrasing Jiang, 85, who a decade after he retired still exercises some influence over major decisions. One of the sources said Jiang was not at the Jingxi meeting and it was unclear where he made the remarks or how he conveyed them.
Hu's expected successor, Xi, also has stayed closely in line with the leadership's position on Bo, said the retired official.
IDEOLOGICAL RIFTS, RUMOURS
Describing Bo's downfall as a serious but isolated case of wrongdoing, Hu urged officials at the meeting to end ideological rifts and rumours ignited by the scandal, the sources added.
The domestic security chief, Zhou Yongkang, has faced accusations that he sought to protect Bo, but his career appears to have survived the controversy, despite rumours that Zhou could be sidelined.
"Zhou has been encouraged by the party leadership to make regular appearances and show he's trusted," said the retired official. He noted that Zhou and President Hu made a high-profile joint appearance before police on May 18.
Premier Wen had suggested he favoured a wider reckoning in March when, a day before Bo was sacked as Chongqing party chief, the premier linked Bo's failings to the discredited radicalism of the Cultural Revolution.
But at the recent party meetings, Wen's comments were chided by some other officials, two of the sources said.
However, China's leaders could find enforcing demands for conformity from the public harder than from within the party.
Bo nurtured an ardent following among leftists who embraced what they viewed as his model of egalitarian growth, and they have continued to defend him as the victim of a plot. He had used Chongqing, a province-level municipality in southwest China, as a showcase for left-leaning populist policies.
Liberal reformers, however, want the government to look beyond Heywood's death and examine complaints about Bo's leadership, including accusations that his populist crackdown on organised crime in Chongqing involved abuses such as torture.
He was brought down after a furore erupted when his police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to a U.S. consulate for more than 24 hours in February and told American diplomats that he believed Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was implicated in Heywood's death in November, according to later descriptions of Wang's allegations.
"The leadership won't turn this into a line struggle," independent politics researcher Chen Ziming said, using the party's jargon for an ideological purge.
Beijing-based Chen, who has sources close to the party, said there appeared to have been heated internal debate over how to handle the Bo case before deciding to contain it.
"The drama is focused on the three actors, and that's already complicated enough," Chen said, referring to Bo, his wife Gu, and the ex-police chief Wang.
"If there are more actors brought into the drama, then it will become just too complicated and troublesome."
Bo, 62, and Gu, 52, have disappeared from public view and have had no chance to respond publicly to the allegations.
OUT OF SIGHT
The make-up of the next central leadership elite will be settled over coming months through an opaque process of inspections, jockeying and balancing rival camps in the party.
In recent weeks, the party has launched informal ballots and inspections to size up potential candidates for promotion into the Central Committee, which has about 200 full members, and the Politburo, a more powerful body with about two dozen members, the three sources said.
The Politburo Standing Committee, the core decision-making body, is chosen from the Politburo. The standing committee currently has nine members.
"Now they're going from province to province to examine officials and settle on possible candidates for the next leadership," said Chen, the researcher.
In China's top-down politics, final decisions rest with a handful of leaders, but the results of these assessments can sway deliberations, he said.
The informal polls would serve as a basis for discussions when the leaders head to summer villas in coastal Beidaihe in July or August, when the new succession lineup would be firmed up, said one of the sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. (Editing by Brian Rhoads, Don Durfee and Mark Bendeich)