As former Politburo member Bo Xilai prepares to stand trial on Thursday, the Communist Party of China (CPC) is facing a delicate balancing act between sending a strong message on tackling graft and maintaining political unity.

His trial will begin on Thursday morning at the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court, in northeastern Shandong province, as he faces charges of bribery, graft and abuse of power, the official Xinhua news agency confirmed on Sunday.

The much-awaited trial has been seen by many Chinese analysts as the most eagerly anticipated since the trial of Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, and the “Gang of four” in 1980, which brought the curtains down on the turbulent Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

While Jiang’s trial was televised and elicited wide public interest across the country, the CPC has, by contrast, treated Mr. Bo’s case with far less transparency. The party has, in recent weeks, clamped down on online discussion of the trial. On August 5, journalist Song Yangbiao, who had been a supporter of Mr. Bo’s policies in Chongqing, was detained by police after he wrote an online article in support of the now disgraced politician.

The CPC’s wariness underscores Mr. Bo’s unique status among politicians of his generation.

Mr. Bo was a widely popular leader both in Chongqing and in northeastern Dalian. His stature also derived from his position as a leading party “princeling”. His father Bo Yibo was an influential Party elder and associate of Mao Zedong.

The CPC’s new leader Xi Jinping — a fellow “princeling” — has pledged to crack down on both “tigers and flies”, referring to top-level cadres and lower-level officials, in the high-profile anti-corruption campaign launched following last November’s leadership change.

Rising public anger against rampant corruption has added pressure on the CPC to deal strongly with Mr. Bo, who will be the highest-ranked leader to stand trial since the former Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu was sentenced to a 18-year jail term, also for bribery and abuse of power, in 2008.

This trial, however, promises to be a far more complicated affair for the party, considering both Mr. Bo’s high profile and the added public interest in the case.

Mr. Bo continues to enjoy support among fellow “princelings”, especially those with familial and patronage ties to Bo Yibo, Mr. Bo’s once influential father. Charges filed at the Jinan court on July 25 said Mr. Bo had “embezzled a huge amount of public money and abused his power, seriously harming the interests of the state and people”.

It also accused the former Politburo member of taking “advantage of his position to seek profits for others” and “accepting an ‘extremely large amount’ of money and properties”.

Maximum sentence

Mr. Bo is expected to plead guilty to the charges. The maximum sentence Mr. Bo could receive is the death penalty, but analysts see such an outcome as unlikely considering the political sensitivity of the case. In China, the outcomes of high-profile political trials are usually decided in advance in internal deliberations.

An internal party document circulated recently appeared to suggest that the charges aimed at Mr. Bo might perhaps be not as severe as some had expected. The document accused him of taking 20 million Yuan in bribes (around Rs. 20 crore) — far less than the astronomical figures that had been suggested by some last year.

The charges listed last year by the Politburo — then under former leader Hu Jintao — also appeared more serious than those filed at the Jinan court last month. The Politburo statement last September said Mr. Bo had, in addition to receiving “huge bribes personally and through his family”, “violated organisational and personnel disciplines” and “maintained improper sexual relationships with a number of women”.

The Politburo then called on “Party organisations at various levels to use the case as a negative example” to “improve the Party’s working style”.

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