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By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (Reuters) - Leftist supporters of China's toppled politician Bo Xilai are digging in for an unusually defiant defense of their hero, arguing that he and his wife are victims of a plot that has opened a dangerous schism between them and the Communist Party.

A Chinese court handed Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, a suspended death sentence on Monday after finding her guilty of murdering a British businessman, Neil Heywood.

But no amount of propaganda about Gu's misdeeds appears likely to persuade Bo's supporters that the case was anything but a conspiracy to derail him and discredit his mix of populist economic pledges and Mao Zedong-inspired socialist revivalism.

The party's far-leftists have openly accused top leaders of plotting to oust Bo, and even circulated by email and online an extraordinary petition calling for the impeachment of Premier Wen Jiabao. Its reported signatories included two retired senior officials, although this could not be independently confirmed.

"At least for now, I believe there are too many doubtful points about the case," said Han Deqiang, an academic in Beijing, who has been one of ardent defenders of Bo's policies in Chongqing, the southwestern city that Bo made into a display case of populist policies and traditional socialist culture.

"I believe that this whole incident was intended to eradicate Bo Xilai's Chongqing model," said Han, who teaches at the Beihang University school of business management. "They have destroyed a ray of hope for the Chinese Communist Party."

Bo has been held at an unknown location away from the public since he was ousted in March, accused of unspecified violations of party discipline, possibly including corruption and abuse of power. There has been no official word on how the party leadership will handle those accusations and whether he will face trial. But Bo's political career, at least, seems over.

The uproar over Bo shows that, as the Communist Party weaves between market reforms and state controls, it faces dissent not only from liberals, but also from fervent leftists who see the party as enslaved by capitalist interests.

Often seen as the party's attack dogs against dissidents and Western critics, these far-leftists threaten to open a new front of troublesome opposition, wielding the banner of Bo against the establishment. If Beijing deals harshly with Bo, it risks deepening the divisions; if it treats him leniently, it risks being seen to vindicate Bo and his left-leaning agenda.

"Originally, the leftists were to some extent ideologically accommodated by the political centre, and seen as a political tool to counter right-wing forces," said Xiao Gongqin, a historian at Shanghai Normal University who writes about politics. "But now they feel disenchanted in the system.

"They think their chances to realize their leftist egalitarian ideals inside the system through someone like Bo have faltered, even been lost, and so they're becoming a force outside the system," he said in a telephone interview.

If China's economy deteriorates and social strife deepens, far-left populists appealing to nostalgia for Mao's era could win a wider audience among disenchanted citizens, Xiao says in his new book, "Beyond Left and Right Radicalism".

Conspiracy theories circulating around China about Gu's trial include allegations that the heavy-set, puffy-faced woman who stood in the dock was not her, but a submissive stand-in. Less extreme critics say the prosecution's case against Gu was implausible and riddled with contradictions.

The campaign of online articles and petitions to defend Bo and attack his foes, especially Premier Wen and President Hu Jintao, has exposed the extent to which this scandal differs from past oustings of contentious leaders, which drew scant dissent. This time the opposition is open and ideological, despite widespread Internet censorship.

"Hu and Wen had to expend all their political credibility to push through this case against Gu," said one comment on Tuesday on www.redchinacn.net, a far-left website that has issued a torrent of commentary over the case.

"But once this credit is used, it's gone. Going forward, China won't be able to avoid chaos."

Such opposition is a symptom of the difficulties the Communist Party will have in enforcing conformity as it navigates a once-in-a-decade power transfer and faces contentious choices about the direction of the economy.

"In Chinese politics today, leaders have to look not just at their superiors, but also at the ordinary people," said Sima Nan, a well-known defender of Bo's policies who makes a living appearing on television entertainment shows.

"Bo Xilai can't be shut away like Yang Baibing was, because now is the era of the Internet, and so controlling opinion is so much more difficult," said Sima, referring to an ambitious Chinese general ousted in 1993.

"NOW WE HAVE A POLITICAL LEADER"

Leftist supporters say the effort to bury Bo in disgrace has instead created a charismatic figurehead for them, a defender of Mao-inspired virtues threatened by economic liberalization and Western-inspired ideological heresies.

"Before we were just scholars, but now we have a political leader recognized by people both inside and outside the system," said Han, the Beijing academic.

A former minister of commerce who favored sharp business suits and expensive-looking ties, Bo, 63, appears to be an unusual pin-up for followers of old-time socialist virtues.

But after being moved in 2007 to run the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, Bo turned it into a heavily publicized showcase for policies that his backers said served as a model of growth that spread wealth to all.

He orchestrated a controversial campaign against organized crime that his supporters praised as attacking the ill-gotten wealth of corrupt businessmen and officials. He and his staff also courted leftist academics with visits and research grants.

"The ordinary people can see for themselves what he's done," said Wang Zheng, a former college teacher in Beijing who has campaigned to defend Bo, issuing petitions to China's leaders.

"He really does have a high standing among these ordinary people, and that's not something that comes from thin air."

Although Beijing has shut several websites that defended Bo after his ousting, other Chinese websites continue to feature commentaries lauding him and decrying the trial of Gu as a plot.

"Warning to Hu and Wen: citizens and party members have the right to defend Bo," said a recent posting on the "Red China" website. The same site circulated the petition demanding the impeachment of Premier Wen, accusing him of planning a massive sell-off of state-held businesses.

"Wen Jiabao has committed grave errors and crimes," said the petition, which its sponsors claimed was signed by 1,644 people, including two retired central government officials.

"Wen Jiabao has become the representative at the apex of the party central leadership of a faction favoring all-out Westernization," the petition added.

The former senior officials, Ma Bin and Li Chengrui, could not be contacted to confirm whether they had signed the petition. But several other people who appeared as signatories confirmed that they had endorsed it.

The "Red China" site has been blocked to the many Chinese users who do not know how to evade censorship barriers. But Zhang Hongliang, a prominent proponent of reviving Maoist socialism, said voices defending Bo would not be silenced.

"Outwardly, it appears that the loser has been Bo Xilai," Zhang, who has made a living by giving lectures on how to trade stock, said in emailed comments. "In fact, the biggest losers have been the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese nation."

(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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