By Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) - China for the first time on Wednesday implicated former senior politician Bo Xilai in a criminal act while avoiding naming him directly in a published account by state media of the trial of his one-time police chief.
The Bo scandal has rocked Beijing, exposing rifts within the ruling Communist Party - elements of which are strong supporters of Bo's populist, left-leaning policies - at a time when China is preparing for a once-in-a-decade leadership change.
Wang Lijun, ex-police chief of southwestern Chongqing city, tried to tell "the Chongqing party committee's main responsible person at the time" - in other words, then-Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo - that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was suspected of murdering a British businessman.
But Wang was "angrily rebuked and had his ears boxed", according to Xinhua news agency's official account of Wang's trial this week in Chengdu city, near Chongqing.
The virtually unmistakable reference to Bo increases the chances of him facing criminal charges, possibly for covering up a crime or corruption.
So far, Bo has only been accused of breaching internal party discipline. He has not responded publicly to the allegations against him.
Wang, 52, lifted the lid on the murder and cover-up of British businessman Neil Heywood in February when he went to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and, according to sources, told envoys there about the murder that would later bring down Bo.
Within two months of Wang's 24-hour visit to the consulate, Bo was sacked as party boss and from the Communist Party's Politburo and Bo's wife Gu was accused of poisoning the businessman.
A court has since given Gu a suspended death sentence for the killing in late 2011.
Xinhua said that the day after Gu had poisoned Heywood in a Chongqing hotel, Wang met her and she acknowledged that she had killed him. Wang secretly recorded that conversation, but did not act on Gu's admission.
"After arriving in Chongqing, I would often go to the home of Bogu Kailai. I felt Bogu Kailai was very good to me," Xinhua said, citing Wang's testimony.
Bogu is Gu's official but rarely used family name.
"At the time, my selfish motives were guiding me. I didn't want to face this case," Wang said.
However, as the weeks went on Xinhua said problems began to arise between Wang and Gu. He felt that she was turning on him.
Several of Wang's colleagues became targets of "illegal investigations" and Wang began to feel he was in danger and so decided to flee, ending up in the U.S. mission in Chengdu.
"Inside the U.S. consulate, after Wang spoke briefly with consular officials about environmental protection, education, and science and technology, he stated that because his personal safety had been threatened while investigating cases, he requested shelter with the U.S. side, and furthermore made an application for political asylum," Xinhua said.
The only corruption cases mentioned in the Xinhua account involved close business cronies of the former politician - potentially opening a corruption angle against Bo himself.
Xu Ming, a plastics-to-property entrepreneur whose long association with Bo extended for over two decades, offered two homes in Beijing worth over 2.85 million yuan to a relative of Wang's, Xinhua said.
In return, Wang helped free three of Xu's associates that had been taken into custody in Chongqing. Xu was detained in March, the day before Bo's ouster was announced.
A former intelligence agent, Yu Junshi, who has also been detained since March, was cited as renting expensive villas for Wang, in return for the freedom of another man held by the Chongqing police. Yu had also known Bo since the 1990s.
Bo had been considered a strong candidate for the next top leadership body, which is expected to be unveiled at the party's 18th congress next month. Vice President Xi Jinping is seen as all but certain to take over as party chief and inherit the challenge of trying to heal internal wounds.
Bo's downfall has stirred more public division than that of any other party leader for more than 30 years. To leftist supporters, Bo became a charismatic rallying figure for efforts to reimpose party control over dizzying, unequal market growth.
But he had made some powerful enemies among those who saw him as a dangerous opportunist who yearned to impose his harsh policies on the entire country.
(Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby, Terril Yue Jones and Sally Huang; Editing by Ron Popeski)