JINAN, China -- As the trial of Bo Xilai, the fallen Communist Party aristocrat, neared its start in this eastern provincial capital, security officers, journalists and some supporters of the charismatic Mr. Bo fanned out in the streets around a downtown courthouse on Wednesday, looking for signs of how the closed-door hearing might unfold.
The scandal that brought down Mr. Bo is arguably the biggest one to shake the party in decades, and China's leaders have had to take into account powerful competing forces -- from liberal party officials who have denounced Mr. Bo to revolutionary families still close to him -- while preparing for the trial.
Detained by security officials since March 2012, Mr. Bo was indicted in late July on charges of taking bribes, corruption and abuse of power. The charges came almost one year after his wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence for murdering Neil Heywood, a British family associate. The trial that starts Thursday is expected to be the final blow to Mr. Bo's vaunted political career -- he had until last year been one of 25 Politburo members and party chief of the municipality of Chongqing; he had even been considered a candidate for one of the very highest party posts, which were handed out in November.
The Bo case has exposed deep-rooted corruption and vindictiveness at the top levels of the party and cast a spotlight on the growing power of the "princelings," those privileged Chinese who are the children or grandchildren of the Communist revolutionary leaders. Like the obsession with royal families in other countries, many Chinese are alternately fascinated and repelled by the lifestyles of the princelings, whose ranks include Mr. Bo and Xi Jinping, China's top leader.
One Bo family associate said a rehearsal of the trial was held Tuesday in Jinan, with Mr. Bo reportedly in attendance. What Mr. Bo will say -- or be allowed to say -- in court is one of the central questions hovering over the trial. On Monday, Mr. Bo's youngest son, Bo Guagua, 25, who is in orientation week at Columbia Law School, said in a statement to this newspaper that he hoped his father would be "granted the opportunity to answer his critics and defend himself without constraints of any kind."
On Wednesday, police officers in light-blue uniforms stood at the gate outside the courthouse and along a patch of sidewalk across the street, where a holding pen for journalists had been erected with colorful plastic barriers. On occasion, a supporter of Mr. Bo would show up yelling a slogan, or a petitioner with an unrelated grievance would unfurl a banner, and the officers would urge them to move on. Paramilitary police officers in green uniforms stood beneath a nearby overpass, next to a fire truck.
Some of Mr. Bo's supporters have become more vocal in recent days, against the wishes of party leaders, who presumably want the trial to end quickly and without causing further political rifts.
"The people, of course, will support Bo Xilai, especially the people of Chongqing," Han Deqiang, a college professor and co-founder of a leftist Web site, said in a telephone interview. "But since our party central has said so, they are unable to do anything about it. Maybe one day in the future, history will rehabilitate this unjust case."
Mr. Bo, 64, certainly has his critics, including liberals who label his "strike black" anticorruption drive in Chongqing an affront to human rights. And the announcement of the trial date last Sunday indicated that the top ranks of the party had remained united on how to deal with Mr. Bo. One year ago, after the Heywood scandal became public, party leaders and elders agreed to fully end Mr. Bo's career, despite the fact that he is the son and political heir of one of the "Eight Immortals" of the party, Bo Yibo. The party's findings against Mr. Bo were announced in September, before the start of the criminal investigation, and the accusations made public then were harsher than the formal charges filed in late July.
Political analysts said the exact charges and their substance had been calibrated to ensure that the public could accept officials' handing Mr. Bo a long prison sentence, probably 15 to 20 years.
The leaders have tied the bribetaking and corruption or embezzling charges to transactions that supposedly occurred while Mr. Bo was mayor of Dalian, in northeast China. People briefed on the case said prosecutors were accusing Mr. Bo's family of having taken $3.5 million in bribes, most of it in the form of a villa in the French resort town of Cannes, from Xu Ming, an old friend whom Forbes listed in 2005 as the eighth-richest man in China. The corruption charge is reportedly tied to $800,000 that went missing from a Dalian construction agency.
The third charge, abuse of power, is said to be linked to the way Mr. Bo handled Wang Lijun, the former police chief of Chongqing, who was a close friend of Ms. Gu and was in theory leading the investigation in late 2011 into Mr. Heywood's death. After Mr. Wang told Mr. Bo in January 2012 what he knew of Ms. Gu's role in the death, Mr. Bo reportedly slapped Mr. Wang, and then later demoted him. Mr. Wang fled to a nearby United States Consulate to tell officials there of the Heywood murder. Last year, a court sentenced Mr. Wang to 15 years in prison on various charges, including treason.
From 2008 to 2012, while governing Chongqing, Mr. Bo worked hard to build popular support by promoting a new brand of socialist policy, which led to his embrace by Chinese leftists, and he "played an important role" in pushing forward Chongqing as an experimentation zone, as central officials had wanted starting in 2007, said Cui Zhiyuan, a professor of public policy at Tsinghua University. So party officials have been careful not to criticize Mr. Bo's policies in Chongqing, which were aimed at resurrecting some of the socialist spirit that the party had embraced in the Mao era. He pushed for low-income housing, for example, and experimented with giving migrant workers a channel to official urban residency and its benefits. While carrying out the "strike black" campaign, he rallied the masses with revolutionary song singalongs.
The leadership has seen from online posts that many people are still behind Mr. Bo, said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "They have to send a clear message to the left," he said, pointing out that many of the posts have been deleted on the orders of the central propaganda department. "They only want the central authorities' voice to be heard."
Some of China's most virulent leftists refuse to buy into the party's narrative about Mr. Bo. They see him as the victim of infighting within the party's upper ranks, and many point fingers at Wen Jiabao, the former prime minister who publicly promoted liberal values and was an enemy of Mr. Bo.
"Even if the charges are true -- and that's a huge if -- a Politburo member who embezzles 5 million yuan or takes 20 million yuan in bribes is still an honest and upright official," Mr. Han said.
Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting, and Patrick Zuo contributed research.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.