The wife of purged Chinese Politburo member Bo Xilai has been charged with murder, authorities said on Thursday, in the clearest indication yet that investigations into the once-influential leader had moved forward, ahead of a crucial leadership transition.

The state-run Xinhua news agency reported that Gu Kailai, wife of the former Chongqing party secretary who was suspended in April over “serious disciplinary violations”, will stand trial in a court in Hefei in southern Anhui province, and face charges of “intentional homicide” over the death of British businessman Neil Heywood, once a close business associate of the Bo family.

The death of Heywood in Chongqing sparked China’s biggest political scandal in decades, which came to light when the municipality’s former police chief, Wang Lijun, who was investigating Ms. Gu’s role in Heywood’s death, fled to a U.S. Embassy in Chengdu in February seeking asylum after falling out with her husband.

Thursday’s report said Ms. Gu and an orderly at the Bo home, Zhang Xiaojun, had been charged with “intentional homicide” by the Hefei Municipal Procuratorate. Prosecutors had “interrogated” the two defendants and heard the opinions of their defence team. The report claimed the facts of the alleged crime were “clear” and the evidence “irrefutable and substantial”, and added that the Hefei Intermediate Court would hold a trial on a day to be decided later.

According to Xinhua, investigations showed that Ms. Gu had poisoned Heywood following “conflicts” over economic interests. Heywood had, according to earlier media reports, been involved with the Bo family’s overseas business dealings and had also played a role in helping Mr. Bo’s son, Bo Guagua, attend the elite Harrow school in Britain. Ms. Gu had been “worrying about Neil Heywood’s threat to her son’s personal security”, Xinhua reported.

Before Wang Lijun triggered the scandal by his flight to the U.S. Embassy, Mr. Bo had been seen a key figure in the next generation of the leadership which will come into power following a once-in-a-decade transition later this year. The son of an influential founding revolutionary figure of the Communist Party, Bo Yibo, Bo Xilai enjoyed the support of many fellow “princelings” in the party and in the People’s Liberation Army.

In his last public appearance, during the annual convening of the Parliament in March, Mr. Bo strongly defended his track record and suggested that interest groups that he had targeted during a corruption crackdown that brought him nationwide praise were looking to oust him. But only days after his comments, Premier Wen Jiabao publicly criticised his handling of the Wang Lijun incident, and also took the unusual step of attacking his policies. Mr. Bo’s “Chongqing model”, emphasising state-led growth and social equality, had made him a favourite with a resurgent “New Left”. His Mao-inspired campaigns to revive the singing of “Red songs” were, however, more controversial.

Mr. Wen, warning against reviving “a second Cultural Revolution”, suggested that his policies were going against the consensus adopted by the party in 1978 to pursue opening up and reform.

Officials are keen to draw a line on the case ahead of the 18th Party Congress, scheduled to be held in October or November, which will finalise the line-up of the next generation of leaders. Settling the case against Ms. Gu, which is being handled by judicial authorities, will pave the way for the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to move forward investigations regarding Mr. Bo.

Beijing has, however, proceeded cautiously considering Mr. Bo’s influence, garnered through his wide network of personal connections and from the legacy of his father. Authorities took three weeks just to announce his suspension from the Politburo following his removal as party secretary. In recent weeks and months, the opinion of high-ranking party officials as well as influential retired leaders such as the former President, Jiang Zemin, has been sought to reach a consensus.

When that will be arrived at remains far from clear: it took the Communist Party as long as 18 months to settle the case against another purged Politburo member, Chen Liangyu, who was sentenced in 2008. And Mr. Bo’s case, considering his unique political background and vast connections, is seen as being far more complicated.

More In: International | News