Disgraced Chinese high-flier set for court in biggest trial in almost half-a-century

Policemen remove a petitioner outside the court where the trial of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai will be held on Thursday in Jinan, Shandong province. Carlos Barria / Reuters

JINAN, China -- China’s biggest trial in almost half a century was set to start on Thursday, with a former rising star in the country’s ruling Communist Party facing charges of corruption a year after his wife was jailed for murder. 

Uniformed policemen tried to disperse animated discussions that sprung up among around 30 people who had gathered outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Jinan in Shandong province, where Bo Xilai is set to appear in public for the first time in 17 months to face charges of bribery, corruption and abuse of power. In August 2012, Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.

"Those who oppose the Communist Party and Mao Zedong thought will definitely be opposed by the people," shouted a Bo supporter, a bespectacled man in his 50s.

"What's wrong with singing red songs and supporting the Communist Party? The ordinary masses love to hear these red songs," said a middle-aged woman, referring to the revolutionary-era songs encouraged by Bo during his time as chief of the Communist Party in southwestern Chongqing.

After his dramatic downfall last year, authorities have sometimes discouraged the singing of these songs, probably because of their connection in the popular imagination to Bo, who looked set to join the top ranks of the Chinese establishment before his dramatic downfall.

"But Bo engaged in illegal arrest of people and illegal seizure of assets," a young man countered.

Supporters and demonstrators declined to provide names, apparently for fear of repercussions.

The spontaneous debate at the courthouse was dominated by a finger-pointing and cheering crowd of Bo supporters, indicating that Bo's image as champion of the masses lingers, despite the government's effort to bury his legacy. While there were only a handful of protesters and supporters at the courthouse, their presence showed that Bo has supporters who are willing to risk being detained by security forces.

The trial of the disgraced but charismatic politician caps off the country's biggest political scandal since the downfall of the Gang of Four at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.

It also reveals the ruling Communist Party’s struggle to appear responsive to charges of corruption within its ranks, yet remain untainted by widespread allegations of misuse of power, says Shaun Breslin, professor of Chinese politics at Britain’s University of Warwick and fellow at international think tank Chatham House.

“On one side it wants to say there’s corrupt and we’re dealing with it, but you don’t want to say there is something about the system that is wrong,” he said. “It’s a tightrope they have to walk.”

The country’s leaders are struggling to deal with deep-seated resentment with the income inequality and perceived corruption and cronyism among the country’s elite. So while the recent economic boom has made China the world’s second-largest economy, it has also produced dramatic wealth inequality, vast environmental degradation and the assumption among many Chinese that the government is not working in their interests.

China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai looks on during a meeting at the annual session of China's parliament at the National People's Congress in Beijing in this file picture taken March 6, 2010. Jason Lee / Reuters

“There is this feeling that elites are running the country for themselves and their kids are running around in Lamborghinis and Ferraris. It is a key cause of resentment among the general population,” Breslin said.

Bo’s trial is also the end of an attempt to end a power struggle within the Communist Party, says Bo Zhiyue, research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore.

“It’s not a power struggle over ideological orientations, it was basically a zero sum game of power struggle,” he said.

The Communist Party has become unpopular because of corruption, so they have to do something about it, Bo said.

“Bo Xilai lost out,” he added.

NBC News' F. Brinley Bruton and Reuters contributed to this report.