BEIJING - Prosecutors have charged the wife of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai and a family aide with the murder of a British businessman, the government said Thursday, pushing ahead a case at the center of a messy political scandal that unsettled China's leadership ahead of a delicate power transition.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that the recently issued indictment said Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had a falling out with Briton Neil Heywood over money and worried that it would threaten her and her son's safety. Gu and the aide, Zhang Xiaojun, are alleged to have poisoned Heywood together, the report said. Heywood's death in November was attributed initially to a heart attack or excessive drinking.
The brief report is the first official news that the case against Gu is proceeding since the announcement three months ago that she and Zhang were being investigated and that Bo was being suspended from the powerful Politburo for unspecified discipline violations. Unmentioned in the Xinhua report was any reference to Bo or a separate party investigation into him.
"To charge a Politburo member if he was involved in any way in the murder would have sullied the reputation of the Communist Party in ways that would have been too much for the leadership to handle," said Joseph Fewsmith, a China politics expert at Boston University.
Bo's ouster and the investigation into his family presented the Communist Party leadership with its ugliest public scandal in nearly two decades. It exposed the bare-knuckled infighting that the secretive leadership prefers to hide and affirmed an already skeptical public's dim view about corrupt dealings in the party.
News of Gu's prosecution signals that the leadership has closed ranks and reached a general agreement about the case as well as arrangements to install a younger group of leaders at a party congress later this year.
"They have to try to show solidarity, because if they do not do that the consequences are alarming. It would undermine social stability" by sending a signal about divisions in the ranks, said Cheng Li, an elite politics expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
By making the announcement on the eve of the London Olympics, the leadership also likely hopes that public attention will be absorbed watching the Chinese team, instead of circulating political gossip, said Li. Given that the congress is still unscheduled and likely several months away, the leadership has time to dispatch Gu's and Bo's cases and allow public interest to flag in the interim, Li and others said.
In a sign that the release of the news was carefully managed, the Xinhua's report was read on state television and posted on official mainstream news sites. But it appeared to have been scrubbed off popular microblogs, where Bo and his wife's names remain banned search terms. Commenting was disabled on most sites that carried the Xinhua report, while other webpages only allowed comments in support of the prosecution.
Before his fall, Bo was one of China's most powerful and charismatic politicians. The son of a revolutionary veteran and party secretary of the Austria-sized metropolitan area of Chongqing, he was thought to be destined for a seat in the leadership's inner sanctum, the Politburo Standing Committee.
On his rise, Bo led high-profile campaigns to bust organized crime and to promote communist culture. In doing so, however, his administration ran roughshod over civil liberties that angered some leaders and alienated others with his publicity seeking.
The infighting may never have come to light, as has happened in previous leadership fights, except for 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.
The Xinhua report did not say when Gu's trial would be held. She and Zhang were charged in the eastern city of Hefei, far from both Beijing and Chongqing, where Heywood was found dead. Prosecutors have interrogated Gu and Zhang and have "heard the opinions" of their defense lawyers, Xinhua said.
The report also did not say when the indictment was issued or give details about the crime other than that Heywood was poisoned. It referred to Bo's wife as "Bogu Kailai," an unexplained combining of their surnames. It did not name their son, but they have only one, Bo Guagua. A graduate of Oxford University and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, the younger Bo has become a notorious symbol among Chinese of the privilege of the elite.
Xinhua, however, 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. Therefore, the two defendants should be charged with intentional homicide," the report said.