By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's leaders put on a show of unity on Saturday after their damning accusations against disgraced politician Bo Xilai, whose expulsion from the Communist Party drew an outcry from leftist supporters in a sign of the rifts 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 after the ruling Communist Party announced his expulsion on Friday and issued a list of allegations: bending the law to hush up a murder, taking huge bribes and engaging in "improper sexual relations with multiple women".
The party buried Bo under the accusations at the same time that it announced a November 8 date for a congress that will anoint a new generation of top leaders - a lineup that Bo held barely disguised ambitions to join.
On Saturday evening, top leaders gathered in the cavernous national parliament building for a National Day reception, their first public appearance since the revelation of the accusations against Bo.
Premier Wen Jiabao did not mention Bo or any other controversies in his remarks to hundreds of diplomats, officials and other guests.
"Looking ahead, we are full of confidence," Wen told them, adding that "no hardship will prevent us from forging ahead".
The eight other members of the Politburo Standing Committee - the party's innermost core of power - also attended.
Bo's downfall has unsettled their preparations for the leadership succession, and exposed high-level abuse of power after his former police chief briefly took refuge in a U.S. consulate and revealed that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had 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," the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary on the case.
"As a senior party official, Bo Xilai should have been a model of obedience to party discipline," the news agency said in the commentary, widely distributed by state media websites. "But instead he monopolized power and behaved recklessly, doing as he pleased and gravely violating discipline."
"His misdeeds deserve their punishment."
Earlier on Saturday, the party-run parliament confirmed that Bo had been removed as a delegate, following his expulsion from the party and its governing councils, Xinhua news agency reported.
DEMONISATION AND DISILLUSIONMENT
The party could face trouble, however, convincing skeptics that it has only recently awoken to Bo's crimes, which it traced 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 stream 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 get past 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 favored 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 polarizing 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 organized 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. (Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in Shanghai; Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Robert Birsel)