Bo Xilai, pictured at a Chongqing, China, event in 2010, is to go on trial… (AFP/Getty Images )
BEIJING — It could be China's most politically charged courtroom drama since the "Gang of Four" including Mao's wife stood trial in 1980 for orchestrating the Cultural Revolution.
Politics — and murder — are in the picture, but they will form part of the background this time. People familiar with the case say it will be mostly about money. And that amounts to something of a gamble for the Communist leadership.
Once a contender for the uppermost echelon of the Communist Party leadership, Bo Xilai was purged prior to the party congress last year where his rival, Xi Jinping, became China's leader. His spectacular downfall followed a strange murder case in which his wife was found guilty of poisoning a British businessman.
In his own trial likely to start soon, the 64-year-old Bo stands accused of abusing his public position to grow indecently rich. People familiar with the details say it will mostly skirt the murder case, although it is alleged that the businessman, Neil Heywood, had helped the Bo family funnel money out of China.
"This will be all about economic crimes," said Shen Zhigeng, a lawyer who has represented the family of Bo's wife, Gu Kailai.
Through proxies, Bo and his wife are said to have owned a $3.5-million villa in Cannes, luxury apartments in London as well as a condominium in Cambridge, Mass., where their son had attended Harvard's Kennedy School.
The problem for China's leaders, their critics point out, is that in some ways they're not so different from Bo. Many of them are equally well off or have families who have grown rich under the system — and just as intent on placing their children in elite schools outside China.
Bo was actually less obsessed with money than many other politicians are, said a Taiwanese businessman who knows the family well. "He was into power and women. Money was always second," said the businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Chinese government nevertheless wants to use Bo as an example in its campaign against official corruption.
In announcing his indictment last month, the official New China News Agency said "Bo took the advantage of his position as a civil servant to seek gains for others, as well as accepted bribes in the form of large amounts of money and property." It said he also embezzled public money and abused his power.
The charges date back to the 1990s, when Bo served as mayor and later party secretary of Dalian, a port city of 6 million people. He cultivated a close relationship with a young businessman, Xu Ming, and together their fortunes soared. The owner of a small seafood refrigeration warehouse, Xu was awarded no-bid contracts for redevelopment projects that transformed Dalian into an urban showcase.
Just 21 when Bo came to Dalian, Xu became a billionaire within a few years. At one point, according to Forbes, he was the eighth-richest man in China. He showed his appreciation by showering the Bo family with his largess.
Xu allegedly flew the family on first-class trips to Europe and paid for Bo's son to attend the $40,000-a-year Harrow boarding school in London. He hired a law firm run by Gu. He is also suspected of buying various properties for the Bo family, including the stunning villa in Cannes.
"It was a typical relationship between a politician and a businessman — they traded power and money," said Jiang Weiping, a Chinese journalist who was imprisoned after reporting on corruption in Dalian.
The most eye-catching example in the trial is likely to be the villa perched on a leafy hillside overlooking the Mediterranean. It was purchased in 2001 by Residences Fontaine St. Georges, according to French court records uncovered by the Wall Street Journal. Records show that the director of the company was initially Patrick Devillers, a Frenchman who had lived in Dalian, but that management was transferred to Heywood in 2007.
During Gu's trial last year, prosecutors charged that she murdered Heywood because he was demanding $22 million for a "real estate project in France" and another development in Chongqing, where Bo was party leader until he was purged.
The year before Heywood's death, management of the villa was transferred to television hostess Feng Jiang Dolby. Photographs posted on her personal blog, which have since been deleted, show a three-story home surrounded by crenelated white walls with a sparkling swimming pool bordered by shrubbery.
Bo and Gu rarely — if ever — visited the villa, which was rented out as a vacation home to wealthy foreigners, often Russians.
"They were very busy people. They sometimes went to the U.K. or the U.S. or maybe Singapore, but they didn't have time to travel around France," said Larry Cheng, a retired businessman who was Gu's law partner in Dalian.
Cheng said he knew Gu had traveled to Paris, but was not aware of any trips to the French Riviera.