BEIJING — China's leadership faces a knotty choice in how to finish off fallen politician Bo Xilai without further damaging the Communist Party's image: Purge him the old-fashioned way – in secret – or run him through a public trial.
Analysts and a veteran party member say leaders are leaning toward a trial. But either way, the challenge is to prevent lurid allegations that Bo abused his power and that his wife was involved in the murder of a British businessman from upsetting a once-a-decade leadership transition just months away.
"Bo's political life is at an end," said Li Datong, a longtime state media editor forced from a senior editing job for broaching sensitive subjects. "But the party will work to ensure that this goes no bigger and harms their image no more than absolutely possible."
After months of investigation and high-level deliberations, leaders believe a trial will have more public legitimacy, according to analysts and a veteran party member who has been informed of progress in the talks and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing the party's inner workings.
The Communist Party's internal investigators are working with prosecutors to whittle down the charges to portray Bo's infractions as individual acts unrelated to the system, the party member said.
While the unproven allegations against Bo range from illegal wiretapping to illicit sexual liaisons, the ones that likely reflect worst on the party involve graft and flouting basic laws. Many Chinese see those vices as endemic among their leaders, despite repeated avowals by the party to end them.
Putting Bo, 62, on trial would highlight how much public expectations in China are changing the ways the party must operate. In its state-planned, totalitarian heyday, the party never felt it needed to show accountability or publicly explain a purge.
In the party's last major internal crisis – the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989 – the leadership split over dispatching the military to quell the protests. Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was ousted, but never expelled, for his opposition and spent more than 15 years under house arrest until his death.
Now, after decades of rising prosperity and the spread of the Internet, many Chinese expect the government to be more transparent and accountable.
Bo, 62, amassed a big public following as party boss of Chongqing – a mega-city with a surrounding region the size of Austria. His reputation for cracking down on organized crime and championing social fairness and communist nostalgia made him popular among poorer Chinese and those who identify themselves as leftists. Yet he also alienated colleagues, who saw his populist flamboyance as a threat to the party's preferred low-key ways of doing business.
After a longtime aide fled to a U.S. consulate in February and divulged suspicions that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had been involved in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood, his detractors moved to bring him down. Bo was sacked as Chongqing's leader in mid-March, and a month later suspended from the Politburo and placed under investigation for unspecified transgressions. His wife faces criminal charges.
His popularity makes Bo's case particularly tricky and bolsters the chance for a trial, analysts said. Both Bo's sympathizers among communist conservatives and their more liberal rivals are demanding one, said Cheng Li, a Chinese politics expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"It will be something between a secret trial and a semi-open public trial, but even then it will be difficult to control entirely," Li said.
State media raised expectations for a trial in the wake of Bo's ouster by repeatedly declaring that no one is above the law and that the legal process must run its course.
When that might happen is not clear. The leadership handover – in which President Hu Jintao and most others will cede their posts to Vice President Xi Jinping and a new group of leaders – will formally take place at a congress expected in the fall.
An announcement about Bo is expected well before then. However, the trial itself could come months after the congress is over.
The next expected step is for the party's Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection to issue a ruling upholding the accusations against Bo and sending him for criminal prosecution.
Bo's case will be discussed by the leadership at the standing committee's final meeting before the congress, likely at the seaside Beidaihe resort in mid-summer, according to analysts and party members.
The leaders have "decided to wrap up Bo's case as early as August so as to clear the biggest political uncertainty ahead of the congress," Wang Xiangwei, the editor of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, who is thought to have close ties to the Chinese propaganda apparatus, wrote in an editorial Monday.
Bo is currently believed to be under house arrest in Beijing, while his wife and a household aide are in formal detention for the investigation into Heywood's death. The aide and ex-police chief, Wang Lijun, who went to the consulate is believed to be in the custody of China's main intelligence service. He could face the death penalty for treason, though he's expected to receive leniency for providing evidence against Bo and Gu.
In a sign that authorities are trying to dampen speculation, state media has stopped reporting on Bo's case, and reporters say they've been told not to write anything about him.
The option of purging Bo but leaving him under house arrest is seen as risky because it could allow him to keep in contact with supporters, analysts said. Officials used to flock to see Zhao, the party leader purged after Tiananmen, when he was allowed quiet trips outside of Beijing while under house arrest.
"They simply have to put him on trial and then in prison. There is no way they could allow him to travel and draw supporters," said Wang Juntao, a scholar and dissident sentenced to 13 years in prison for advising students during the 1989 protests.
Associated Press reporter Isolda Morillo contributed to this report.