Chinese Communist "princeling" Bo Xilai, expected by many to take a key leadership position in the leadership transition of 2012, was expelled from the Communist Party in September after a career that saw him as Mayor of Dalian City, Minister of Commerce and Party Chief of the Chongqing municipality. His wife Gu Kailai received a suspended death sentence in August 2012 for murdering British business partner Neil Heywood.
Little progress in rule of law since Gang of Four trial
It's the nation's biggest political trial in years. But analysts say the Bo Xilai case shows that little progress has been made over rule of law and judicial independence since another blockbuster political case - that of the Gang of Four in 1980 and 1981.
They say procedural arrangements show not much has changed in terms of transparency or public access since the Gang of Four were convicted of anti-party activities after being ousted in 1976.
A retired journalist, who covered that trial 32 years ago, says a comparison of the two trials suggests the situation has actually regressed. "First, the trial of the Gang of Four was broadcast live but no such arrangement has been made for Bo's case; second, more journalists and more people attended the previous trial than this ongoing one; third, the trial of the Gang of Four was conducted in Beijing while Bo's is in Jinan , hundreds of kilometres away from the political centre; and fourth, the courts then provided more information on the case than the current one," said the journalist.
In the absence of a live broadcast, the Jinan court was "live-blogging" the trial yesterday, providing updates on its Weibo account and through the Weibo and Twitter accounts of Xinhua.
"Some people may see the process as relatively open and transparent," said Dr Fu King-wa, from the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre. "But … the trial of the Gang of Four was broadcast live on television, and now we only have the censored text and still images from Bo's trial."
The journalist said some 900 people attended the 1981 trial, including 330 journalists. Xinhua reports that just 19 journalists, as well as five of Bo's relatives and 86 others, are at the current trial.
The court also offered more written material for the Gang of Four trial, the journalist said, including portions of a 20,000-word indictment that were released to mainland media. This time, Xinhua has offered only a brief statement comprising a few hundred words.
Analysts see Bo's trial as more of a political prosecution than a criminal case, and say President Xi Jinping is eager to put the nation's worst political scandal in years behind him.
"The case once again suggests how Chinese leaders use legal means to purge their political enemies. I see no progress in rule of law and judicial independence compared with the trial of the Gang of Four over three decades ago," said Pu Zhiqiang , a leading human rights lawyer who defended victims of Bo's campaigns in Chongqing .
Typically, officials indicted for corruption attract little sympathy. But Bo still commands significant grassroots support. Bo's downfall has triggered heated debate between his leftist followers, nostalgic for the revolutionary ideals of the Mao era, and reformers, who advocate faster political and economic change.
"The trial of Bo is a test of Xi's grip on power," said Professor Zhang Ming , a Renmin University political scientist. He said Bo's unique status was behind the leadership's more cautious handling of his trial, compared to the treatment of the Gang of Four.
Additional reporting by Joanna Chiu