NEW: China has had to deal publicly with a major scandal, a U.S. analyst says
Bo Xilai had been one of China's most prominent politicians
His wife and a family aide are charged with killing a British businessman
Communist leaders want the scandal over before their next party congress, an expert says
Chinese authorities announced murder charges Thursday against the wife of disgraced Communist Party figure Bo Xilai, a new step in a scandal China’s ruling hierarchy is scrambling to put behind them.
Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, is accused of killing British businessman Neil Heywood in November, the state news agency Xinhua reported. Gu and a family aide have been accused of poisoning Heywood, who died in November.
Heywood died in the southwestern Chinese metropolis of Chongqing, where Bo was the Communist Party chief and a rising star in the party – the son of one of the “eight immortals” of the revolution that created modern China. The case has forced the Communist leadership to confront allegations of wrongdoing by a high-ranking member in an unusually public way, said Douglas Paal, a top China analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“The disruption of his departure from office and his wife’s crimes have made it difficult to present a facade of unity to their people,” Paal said.
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That united front has been key to ruling China for 2,000 years, he said. The current generation of leaders has been particularly sensitive to maintaining it since 1989, when the party hierarchy split over how to deal with the pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Instead, the scandal surrounding Bo and his family “showed what people suspected was high-level corruption at high levels of government,” Paal said.
Now, the leadership is trying to resolve the affair before its once-in-a-decade leadership transition at the Communist Party Congress meeting later this year, said Joseph Fewsmith, an international relations professor at Boston University and a longtime China watcher.
“There was a desire on the part of the Chinese Communist Party to get this case settled. It’s not yet, but it is out of the party and into the hands of criminal courts – well before the 18th Party Congress,” Fewsmith said.
With the issue now before the courts, the case could be resolved “within the next couple weeks,” he said.
“With these cases being dealt with at this time, I expect there to be smooth sailing to the 18th Party Congress,” he said. “There may be some bargaining to go, but most of it has been done.”
Heywood was found dead in his hotel room, and officials quickly blamed his death on excessive alcohol. His body was cremated without an autopsy.
But controversy swirled in February, when Bo’s longtime lieutenant, Wang Lijun, sought refuge at the U.S. Consulate in nearby Chengdu.
Wang, the former police chief who managed Bo’s anti-crime push, wanted political asylum, apparently fearing for his life and allegedly holding incriminating information against his boss.
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Gu and the family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, were arrested in early April and have not seen their relatives since then, the friend said.
But Paal said Wang, not Bo, “is probably the most hated” figure in the affair for going to the Americans.
Wang was taken into custody once he left the consulate for entering the diplomatic post without authorization.
“That’s keeping them honest in a lot of places where they could be dishonest in the past,” he said.
Meanwhile, the party has painted Bo as an outlier who violated party discipline and has been “very careful” not to use his case to purge the party of most of his supporters.
Gu and Zhang are awaiting trial in Hefei, in eastern China. A Bo family friend told CNN that Gu’s lawyers were chosen by the government, not the family.
The friend, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, also said the Bo family was not notified of Gu’s whereabouts until last week.
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Authorities say Gu and her son squabbled with Heywood over “economic interests,” and she regarded him as a threat to her son’s safety.
“This had not previously been reported,” he said.
Britain, which had asked China to investigate the matter further, said it welcomed the charges.
“The details of the ongoing investigation are a matter for the Chinese authorities,” a Foreign Office spokesman said in a statement last week. “However, we are glad to see that the Chinese authorities are continuing with the investigation. We are dedicated to seeking justice for him and his family and we will be following developments closely.”
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Speculation has grown over the nature of Heywood’s work in China and his ties to Bo’s family.
Heywood had lived in China for more than a decade and was married to a Chinese woman. Among the companies he advised was a consulting firm founded by former officers of the British spy agency MI6.
That link fueled rumors that he may have had connections to British intelligence services, but Foreign Secretary William Hague denied that possibility in a public statement in April.
“Mr. Heywood was not an employee of the British government in any capacity,” he said in a letter. He said that the British government usually never confirms nor denies those accounts, but that he was making an exception, “given the intense interest in this case.”
CNN’s Matt Smith contributed to this report.