By Megha Rajagopalan
JINAN, China (Reuters) - China charged disgraced senior politician Bo Xilai with bribery, abuse of power and corruption on Thursday, paving the way for a potentially divisive trial that President Xi Jinping will want smoothly handled as he pushes major economic reforms.
Bo, 64, could appear in a court in the eastern city of Jinan in Shandong province within weeks, capping the country's biggest political scandal since the 1976 downfall of the Gang of Four at the end of the Cultural Revolution. He has not been seen in public for 17 months.
Xi, who formally took power in March, will be eager to put the Bo scandal behind him and have unstinted support from the Communist Party as he embarks on an ambitious rebalancing of the world's second-largest economy.
But the trial of Bo, a charismatic and well-loved leader to some and a power-hungry politician to others, could sharpen rifts.
Bo's ouster exposed deep disagreements in the party between his leftist backers, who are nostalgic for the revolutionary era of Mao Zedong, and reformers, who advocate faster political and economic reforms.
Bo committed serious crimes and will be indicted on the charges of bribery, embezzlement and power abuse, state news agency Xinhua quoted the indictment as saying. He had been informed of his legal rights and interviewed by prosecutors, it said.
Bo, as a civil servant, took advantage of his position to seek profits for others and accepted an "extremely large amount" of money and properties, Xinhua said.
"No matter who you are, whether you have a high or low position, you will be severely punished if you break the law," state media cited Friday's People's Daily as saying in an editorial.
"Bo Xilai's indictment again shows that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law ... and nobody has special rights," it said.
Bo is certain to be found guilty. His wife, Gu Kailai, and his former police chief, Wang Lijun, have both been convicted and jailed over the scandal, which stems from the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
The government in September last year accused Bo of corruption and of bending the law to hush up the murder.
China's prosecutors and courts come under Communist Party control and they are unlikely to challenge the party's previous accusations.
Still, there were no really explosive charges, like plotting a coup, indicating the party wants to move on and not let Bo distract or deeply split them, said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at Hong Kong's City University.
"This tells us there has been a lot of lobbying behind the scenes to perhaps protect Bo from the death penalty and also limit any broader damage," Cheng said. "I think the authorities would like to keep this low profile."
State television's main evening news focused on the clean-up after an earthquake this week in remote Gansu province, in contrast to some previous announcements on the Bo case which topped the widely watched bulletin.
"MISTAKES ARE MISTAKES"
But the government does appear concerned about the public reaction to Bo and any fallout, and Xinhua called on people to support the Communist Party's decision.
"Often after problematic officials are rooted out, we see the media looking back wistfully at their time in office saying how they dedicated themselves to the people," the agency said in a commentary about the charges against Bo. "Success may be success, but mistakes are mistakes."
Xi, however, has shown no sign of any anxiety, appearing relaxed during a tour of central Hubei province this week, where he called for a deepening of reforms to meet economic challenges.
"The higher levels in the party will most probably already have reached a compromise about Bo Xilai so as not to harm the party's fundamental interests or allow there to be any challenges to the new leadership team," said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based political commentator and historian.
Many analysts say it is unlikely Bo would receive the death penalty. They expect the court to hand down a suspended death sentence, which effectively means life in prison, although the term can be reduced to 15 or 20 years.
"It would be immensely controversial if they executed him, it'll be inconsistent with Xi Jinping's efforts to move people forward and unite people and calm things down," Jerome Cohen, a law professor from New York University and an expert in Chinese law, said before the indictment.
Prosecutors in Jinan indicted Bo, Xinhua said, meaning the trial will take place there.
Bo's lawyers, Li Guifang and Wang Zhaofeng, did not respond to request for comment. Government and court officials in Jinan could not be reached.
About two dozen uniformed and plainclothes police officers hovered around the gates of the main courthouse in Jinan, but there were no signs that the trial was imminent.
Xinhua did not say when Bo's trial would start. But according to Chinese law, charges must be served to the defendant and lawyers at least 10 days before a trial begins.
A source with direct knowledge of the case said no definite time had been set for the trial.
TEST OF REFORM
Since becoming Communist Party boss in November, and president in March, Xi has made battling corruption a key objective of his administration, warning that the problem is so severe it could threaten the party's survival.
Analysts say how the trial will be carried out will reflect the government's willingness to promote legal reform.
"If the trial is extremely cursory and raises more questions than answers, it will be a bad signal for legal reform and the role the party intends to give to the law," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"If someone is tried in a very suspicious manner, people will draw a conclusion that this was a political fight that this person lost and was disposed of."
After his appointment as party chief of Chongqing in 2007, Bo turned it into a showcase of revolution-inspired "red" culture and his policies for egalitarian, state-led growth. He also won national attention with a crackdown on organized crime.
His brash self-promotion irked some leaders. But his populist ways and crime clean-up were welcomed by many of Chongqing's 30 million residents, as well as others who hoped that Bo could take his leftist-shaded policies nationwide.
Bo has been accused of receiving more than 20 million yuan ($3.26 million) in bribes and embezzling another 5 million yuan, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday. That is about a third of the amount the government accused former railways minister, Liu Zhijun, of accepting in bribes. Liu was given a suspended death sentence this month.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee, Hui Li, Ben Blanchard, Lucy Hornby and Reuters Television in BEIJING and Greg Torode in HONG KONG; Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Robert Birsel)