By Benjamin Kang Lim and John Ruwitch
BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Senior figures in China's ruling Communist Party fear ousted politician Bo Xilai could stage a political comeback one day if he is not dealt a harsh sentence in his trial for corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power, according to sources.
Bo was a rising star who analysts say was seen as a potential rival to President Xi Jinping for leadership of the Party and country before his career was spectacularly derailed by a lurid murder scandal involving his wife.
Chinese courts are controlled by the Party and do not generally dismiss its charges against defendants, especially in politically-sensitive cases, so Bo will almost certainly be found guilty.
But the unprecedented openness of his five-day trial, approved by those at the top of the Party, may ironically limit the ability of the court to mete out the tough sentence many of those same leaders favor, analysts said.
"Bo is the biggest threat to Xi. If Bo is not executed or does not die of illness, the possibility of Bo staging a comeback one day cannot be ruled out," a source with ties to the leadership, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.
State broadcaster CCTV said a verdict was expected in early September. The five-day trial closed on Monday.
China's Communist Party has a rich history of purges and rehabilitations, with perhaps none as spectacular as that of Deng Xiaoping, architect of the market reforms that remade the country.
Deng was ejected from government during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, but after Mao Zedong died in 1976 he engineered a comeback and went on to rule as China's paramount leader for almost two decades until his own death in 1997.
In an unprecedented effort to show Bo's trial was fair, the Intermediate People's Court in the eastern city of Jinan posted near real-time updates of the proceedings on its microblog on the Twitter-like Weibo platform.
There was evidence of some redactions but an observer in the courtroom who also declined to be identified said the web postings captured the essence of the trial, in which Bo denied all wrongdoing and mounted a feisty defense that surprised many.
Bo stuck largely to addressing the charges and avoided politics, a strategy that a second source with leadership ties said consolidated his position as "China's leftist leader" and showed he was playing the long game.
"Bo is betting on political reform (one day) to make a comeback," the source said.
Much of the minutiae of the trial focused on how illicit payments went to Bo's wife and son, rather than directly to him.
In a poll on Weibo, more people who had a negative view of Bo before the trial said their impression had improved than those who said their impression of him had deteriorated by a margin of about three-to-one. Of those who said they had a positive impression to begin with, five-in-six said their view became even more positive.
"From a common sense judgment there is no evidence against Bo Xilai, and so the leadership's dilemma is what to do," said Bo Zhiyue, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, who is not related to Bo Xilai.
"If you still want to sentence Bo Xilai you will lose credibility saying this is a country of rule of law. But if you let Bo Xilai go free, who can handle Bo Xilai as a free man?"
TIGERS AND FLIES
The 64-year-old former Party chief of the southwestern city of Chongqing and one-time commerce minister cultivated a loyal following through his charisma and populist, quasi-Maoist policies.
His fall from power stemmed from accusations his wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered a family friend, the British businessman Neil Heywood, and that Bo had sought to cover it up after his police chief reported his suspicions.
In the short term, a light sentence could undermine President Xi's pledge to go after corrupt political heavyweights and lightweights respectively.
"If Bo is not executed, 'tigers' and 'flies' will not be afraid of Xi and will not listen to him," the first source with leadership ties said, using Xi's own metaphor for high-ranking and low-ranking offenders.
But Bo, a "princeling" or "red aristocrat", as the children of China's revolutionary leaders are termed, still has many supporters and sympathizers in the Party, government and military.
A Party source familiar with legal cases said former Railway Minister Liu Zhijun and Bo's wife Gu were spared capital punishment, signs that Bo would not be given a death sentence.
"Liu Zhijun accepted more than 60 million yuan in bribes and was way more corrupt than Bo," the party source said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case.
Liu was given a suspended death sentence that typically amounts to life in prison. Gu was convicted of poisoning Heywood and also received a suspended death sentence last year.
Still, prosecutors argued for strong punishment because Bo did not turn himself in, confess or inform against others.
"The danger is that they feel he had a bad attitude," said Gu Yushu, a lawyer appointed by Bo's sister, Bo Jieying, but ultimately denied permission to represent him in court.
"If you have a good attitude with respect to admitting to the crimes they can, at their discretion, be lenient (in sentencing), but if your attitude is bad then they don't have an opportunity to have that discretion to be lenient."
AVOIDING MAJOR CHARGES
Even though Bo is widely seen as being a victim of political infighting, the trial avoided politics altogether.
"The government was actively avoiding major charges and pursuing trivial ones because they want to continue with some of the policies that he espoused," said Li Weidong, writer and former editor who has followed the case closely.
"They are taking the 'Bo Xilai Road' without Bo Xilai."
The trial's published accounts made no mention of Bo's policies in Chongqing, notably his high-profile crackdown on organized crime, which rights groups contend resulted in terrible miscarriages of justice as Bo targeted his critics.
Many Chinese microbloggers appeared too distracted by the much more salacious details of love triangles and expensive foreign trips to wonder about the deeper politics of the case, though censorship likely played a part in that, too.
"There's lots of other illegal stuff they could have gone after him for, like the crime crackdown in Chongqing," said prominent human rights lawyer Shang Baojun.
"It would have attracted too much unwanted attention. They would not have wanted to go down that path."
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Alex Richardson)