BEIJING -- Breaking months of uncomfortable silence, the Chinese Communist Party admitted Monday through a local leader what was patently obvious: that the lurid scandal raging around ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai had caused major damage to China.
In a speech publicized in the state media, Zhang Dejiang, who replaced Bo as party secretary for the city of Chongqing in March, referred to the death of Neil Heywood, a British expatriate allegedly murdered by Bo’s wife, and to the flight to a U.S. consulate by Wang Lijun, who had been head of police.
"The Wang Lijun incident, the death of Neil Heywood and the serious disciplinary violations of comrade Bo Xilai have greatly tarnished the image of the party and the nation," Zhang was quoted as telling delegates at a Communist Party meeting in Chongqing.
Although there was nothing revelatory in his words, the mere fact that they were published suggests that the party is moving close to prosecuting those involved in the largest and certainly juiciest political scandal in recent memory in China.
Political sources say the Communist Party hopes to push the case aside before the 18th party congress later this year, when a new generation of top leaders are to take office in a once-in-a decade transition.
"They are trying to minimize the case, making it look like it was an isolated event," said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Beijing’s Renmin University.
He believes that the Chongqing speech indicates the party is moving forward to soothe public anxiety. “This is very typical of the way the party operates. They want to calm people down and come up with an official explanation."
Wang, who sought asylum after coming to fear for his own life, is likely to be charged with treason for fleeing to the U.S. consulate but is expected to get a lenient sentence because of the circumstances. His trial could take place this summer, according to political sources.
More fraught politically is the fate of Bo, scion of one of China’s most powerful families with a strong following among neo-Maoists, and of his wife, Gu Kailai, a lawyer and daughter of a senior general.
The topic has been taboo in the mainland press since March, with the salacious details of the scandal unfolding mostly in overseas Chinese-language websites. It is alleged that Gu and a butler in Bo’s household arranged for Heywood to be poisoned because he threatened to expose illegal transfers of money outside of China. Bo is not charged with involvement in the murder itself but with the cover-up.
As Communist Party members, all of the defendants have been held incommunicado under a form of extrajudicial detention called shuanggui. Human rights advocated have called for an open trial, which might shed light on corruption among China’s political and economic elite.
Photo: In this March 13 photo, former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, bottom, sings the "Internationale," the international Communist anthem, during the closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference held in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. Credit: Alexander F. Yuan / Associated Press.