China official says scandal damaged party's image

June 18, 2012 - 2:27 AM
China Political Scandal

In this March 13, 2012 photo, former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai attends the closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference held in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, China. The new leadership in the southwestern Chinese city beset by a murder scandal that took down its Communist Party boss says lessons must be learned from the embarrassing episode and efforts made to repair the city's image. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

BEIJING (AP) — A scandal that toppled one of China's most powerful politicians dealt a heavy blow to the reputation of the nation and its ruling Communist Party, a senior official said Monday, in an unusually candid appraisal of China's messiest political upheaval in years.

Zhang Dejiang, who replaced the disgraced Bo Xilai as leader of the southwestern city of Chongqing, said party officials need to study the case, take lessons and support the national leadership's handling of it.

The Bo case "brought serious damage to the image of the country and the party," Zhang, a member of the party's ruling Politburo, told delegates to Chongqing's local Communist Party congress.

"Seriously study and learn the spirit of the center's orders and reflect on the conclusions," Zhang said.

Bo was dismissed in March after his former police chief fled to a U.S. consulate and divulged suspicions that Bo's wife Gu Kailai had been involved in the death last November of a British businessman, Neil Heywood.

Zhang gave no updates on the investigation.

Little has been reported by China's state-run media about Bo since his dismissal — an apparent attempt to keep the lurid details of the scandal from marring a once-a-decade national leadership transition just months away. Bo, once a rising star, had been expected to be a key figure in that reshuffle.

Zhang's remarks diverged from previous statements in acknowledging the damage it had wrought. Earlier editorials in state media focused on saying the party acted correctly in stripping Bo of his posts and pursuing the case through the legal process.

Recent weeks have seen the official media go silent on the case, a sign that the party wished to quash any further discussion until it makes clear exactly how it plans to proceed.

Bo is in the hands of the party's internal discipline and inspection commission, which is expected to issue a statement soon about his infractions. That would open the way for a court trial, not likely to occur before next year, with charges possibly including obstructing police work and abuse of power. Thus far, Bo has been accused only of grievous but unspecified rules violations.

Zhang said Bo's case had also had a "severe impact on the reform and development" of Chongqing, a mega-city of 32 million people which oversees a region the size of Austria.

"Everybody agreed that ... that there should be an earnest search for work-related problems so improvements can be made," Zhang said, according to a transcript of his remarks posted on the city's official news website.

He also tried to separate Bo from Chongqing's sizzling economic growth, praising the public and remaining cadres for the city's success in recent years.

Bo is believed to be under house arrest in Beijing, while his wife and a household aide are in formal detention. The ex-police chief, Wang Lijun, who went to the consulate, is believed to be in the custody of China's main intelligence service. He could face the death penalty for treason, though he's expected to receive leniency for providing evidence against Bo and his wife.

The exact origin of the bad blood between Gu and Heywood isn't exactly known, although the party said in April that they were engaged in a financial dispute that had become progressively more heated.

The leadership handover — in which President Hu Jintao and most others will cede their party posts to Vice President Xi Jinping and a new group of leaders — will formally take place at a congress expected in the fall.

Zhang, who is also a vice premier, is among officials expected to be elevated at that event to the party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee.

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Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen contributed to this report.