HEFEI, China — The wife of a fallen Chinese leader goes on trial Thursday on charges of murdering a British businessman in a politically charged case that may have little to do with whether she really killed him.
Instead, the trial of Bo Xilai's wife, Gu Kailai, is seen largely as a tightly managed way for the leadership to cauterize a political scandal that has embarrassed the Communist Party.
"The men at the top have already made their decisions, and in conspicuous political trials like this, that's where the decision is made," said Perry Link, a Princeton University emeritus professor of East Asian studies. "So the trial, whatever the results and whatever the arguments, it will be theater, just theater."
The scandal has drawn attention to bare-knuckled infighting that politicians prefer to keep behind closed doors – particularly at a time when the government is preparing for a crucial once-a-decade political transition that will install a new generation of leaders. Until his fall, Bo was considered a contender for a top job.
Key among the central leadership's main objectives in Gu's trial is to keep the focus tightly on the murder case and not on larger allegations of corruption that could further taint the communist regime, experts say. Beijing also will closely orchestrate publicity to try to convince the domestic audience that the trial has been fair and the international community that justice has been served in the slaying of a foreigner.
"It's pretty clear that to be part of this ruling power elite in China lets people get very, very rich. And Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai are only one example of that power," Link said. "It's that big pattern that makes the party so nervous about how to handle this case."
Gu and a household aide, Zhang Xiaojun, are accused of poisoning Neil Heywood, a long-time associate of the Bo family, in November in the southwestern mega-city of Chongqing, where Bo was party chief until his ouster this spring. In announcing Gu's indictment, the official Xinhua News Agency has said she had a falling out with Heywood over money and worried that her son's safety was threatened.
Xinhua made clear the government considers the verdict a foregone conclusion.
"The facts of the two defendants' crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial," the report said. If convicted, Gu and Zhang face punishment ranging from more than 10 years' imprisonment to a life sentence or the death penalty.
It will be tricky to get the public to perceive the trial as just, said Cheng Li, a Chinese elite politics expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
A severe sentence for Gu might make her seem a scapegoat for the sins of her husband, regardless of whether she was directly involved in the slaying, Li said. However, if the household aide, Zhang, is sentenced to death but not Gu, it could be construed along class lines: "That would sound like the princelings' lives are far more valuable than others'," he said.
As daughter of a prominent Communist revolutionary, Gu is considered a "princeling," with an exalted status.
Gu and Zhang will be defended by government-appointed lawyers instead of lawyers hired by their families, fueling concerns about fairness.
Keeping the trial centered on the slaying only also will be tricky, because official reports have indicated they had a conflict over "economic interests." Xinhua reports have noticeably lacked details of the alleged dispute. Heywood was reportedly helping the family shift large sums of money overseas.
"It is absolutely explosive to reveal corruption at that level," said Francois Godement, China expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations "These accusations of corruption could be laid against many others and their families and they are very afraid of the potential use of criminal procedure courts for political purposes."
Princeton's Link said the party's main consideration is: "Can we establish a public version of what happened that makes this case go away without opening the question of corruption?"
Before his ouster in the spring, Bo, also the son of a revolutionary veteran, was one of China's most powerful and charismatic politicians. But his overt maneuvering for a top political job as well as high-profile campaigns to bust organized crime and promote communist culture, trampling over civil liberties and reviving memories of the chaotic Cultural Revolution in the process, angered some leaders.
The infighting came to light with the sudden flight to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu of longtime Bo aide and former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun in February. Apparently fearing for his safety if he remained in Chongqing, Wang told American diplomats about his suspicions that Heywood had been murdered and that Bo's family was involved.
In April, Bo was stripped of his most powerful posts and Gu was named a suspect in Heywood's murder. That was followed by a report late last month about her indictment, which indicated that the leadership had closed ranks and reached a general agreement about the case and was ready to move forward with the trial.
Bo is the first Politburo member to be removed from office in five years and the scandal kicked up talk of a political struggle involving Bo supporters intent on derailing succession plans calling for Vice President Xi Jinping to lead the party for the next decade.
Among Bo's vocal supporters were Zhou Yongkang, China's security chief, who as recently as March had praised Bo at the annual legislative session. One week later, Bo was being publicly rebuked by Premier Wen Jiabao and then he was gone. In weeks that followed, overseas-based Chinese websites and political insiders said that Zhou also was under heavy scrutiny.
To really distance itself from Bo, the party needs to address his likely involvement in the murder case, said Li, of Brookings. Li thinks it is only a matter of time before Bo also is implicated, even though official media announcements about the murder so far have excluded mention of Bo.
"We do not know, but the basic logic is: How can you separate these two? The whole thing is related to Bo Xilai," Li said. "Because corruption is a widespread phenomenon. If you single out Bo Xilai, people will say it's unfair. So they have to move to the murder case."
Bo is in the hands of the party's internal discipline and inspection commission, which is expected to issue a statement about his infractions. That would open the way for a court trial, not likely to occur before next year, with charges possibly including obstructing police work and abuse of power. Thus far, Bo has been accused only of grievous but unspecified rules violations.
Then there is the party's concern about China's international image. The murder of a British national, exposed by a Chinese official who likely provided proof to American diplomats, puts pressure on the government to address the issue, at the very least to mollify the British, who are sending diplomats to attend the trial in Hefei on Thursday.
Gillian Wong can be reached at http://twitter.com/gillianwong