The Chinese government pressed ahead on Saturday with an effort to discredit fallen politician Bo Xilai, drawing an outcry from leftist supporters of the former leadership contender in a sign of the rifts that his prosecution could inflame.
Once a charismatic yet divisive star who stood out on China's stolid political stage, Bo is almost sure to face trial and jail eventually after the ruling Communist Party announced his expulsion on Friday and issued a list of sordid allegations: bending the law to hush up a murder, taking huge bribes, and engaging in "improper sexual relations with multiple women."
The party issued the damning accusations at the same time that it announced a November 8 for a congress that will anoint a new generation of top leaders - a lineup that Bo held barely disguised ambitions to join.
Bo's downfall has unsteadied preparations for that leadership succession, and exposed revelations of high-level abuse of power after his former police chief briefly took refuge in a United States consulate and exposed allegations that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, murdered a British businessman.
State media tried to draw a clear line between Bo and the party elite he once belonged to, casting his fall as a victory for the party's determination to fight corruption.
"No matter how high a position, no matter how influential, anyone who violates party discipline and state law will be sternly pursued and punished," said a commentary on the case issued by the official Xinhua news agency.
"As a senior party official, Bo Xilai should have been a model of obedience to party discipline," it said. "But instead he monopolised power and behaved recklessly, doing as he pleased and gravely violating discipline," added the commentary, which was widely distributed by state media websites.
"His misdeeds deserve their punishment."
DEMONISATION AND DISILLUSIONMENT
The party could face trouble, however, convincing skeptics that it has only recently awoken to Bo's crimes, which it traced way back to his years as a city official in northeast China. Bo's leftist supporters have already revived charges that Bo is the victim of a plot to eradicate him and his populist policies.
"Last night, one of the core members of the ruling party's leadership was suddenly turned into a demon," said one commentary on "Red China", a far-left Chinese-language website that has issued a torrent of commentary defending Bo.
"Unlike other ousted senior officials, Bo Xilai's downfall has triggered two diametrically opposed reactions in society - one of elation and relief, and the other of outrage and regret."
The "Red China" site has been blocked to the many Chinese users who do not know how to evade censorship barriers. But China's version of Twitter, "Weibo", has also echoed with debate about Bo's dramatic downfall.
Public support for Bo is unlikely to creep into the heavily regimented party congress, but the effort to disgrace him could foster deeper public disillusionment with the party by showing that one of its formerly favoured officials was steeped in corruption. Bo, 63, is the "princeling" son of a Communist Party official who served alongside Mao Zedong.
"He won support from the underdogs of society and the radical intellectuals, and maybe even some within the party and the military," said Lai Hongyi, who teaches about contemporary China at the University of Nottingham in Britain. "That's probably quite polarising because you are not talking about just a few people but a segment of the whole of Chinese society and the establishment."
After arriving in Chongqing in 2007, Bo turned it into a showcase for pro-growth economics, and ran a campaign against organised crime, policies welcomed by many of the city's 30 million residents, though his brash self-promotion irked some leaders in Beijing.
Bo's wife Gu Kailai and his former police chief Wang Lijun have already been jailed over the scandal stemming from the murder in November of British businessman Neil Heywood.
The official statement carried by Xinhua said that in the murder scandal, Bo "abused his powers of office, committed serious errors and bears a major responsibility." That charge appears to reflect accusations from Wang's trial that suggested Bo tried to stymie the murder investigation.
The government also accused Bo of taking huge bribes and other unspecified crimes. Before Bo is charged and tried, investigators must first complete an inquiry and indict him, but China's prosecutors and courts come under party control and are most unlikely to challenge the accusations.