BEIJING — Prosecutors have charged the wife of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai and a family aide with the murder of a British businessman, the government said Thursday, pushing forward a case at the center of a messy political scandal that unsettled China's leadership ahead of a delicate power transition.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that the recently issued indictment said Mr. Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had a falling out with Briton Neil Heywood over money and worried that it would threaten her and her son's safety. Mrs. Gu and the aide, Zhang Xiaojun, are alleged to have poisoned Mr. Heywood, the report said. His death in November was attributed initially to a heart attack or excessive drinking.
The brief report is the first official news that the case is proceeding since the announcement three months ago that Mrs. Gu and Mr. Zhang were being investigated, and that Mr. Bo was being suspended from the powerful Politburo for unspecified discipline violations. Unmentioned in the Xinhua report was any reference to Mr. Bo or a separate party investigation into him.
"To charge a Politburo member if he was involved in any way in the murder would have sullied the reputation of the Communist Party in ways that would have been too much for the leadership to handle," said Joseph Fewsmith, a China politics specialist at Boston University.
Mr. Bo's ouster and the investigation into his family presented the party leadership with its ugliest public scandal in nearly two decades. It exposed the bare-knuckled infighting that the secretive leadership prefers to hide and affirmed an already skeptical public's dim view of corrupt dealings in the party.
News of Mrs. Gu's prosecution signals that the leadership has closed ranks and reached a general agreement about the case, as well as arrangements to install a younger group of leaders at a party congress later this year.
"They have to try to show solidarity, because if they do not do that the consequences are alarming. It would undermine social stability" by sending a signal about divisions in the ranks, said Cheng Li, an elite politics specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
By making the announcement on the eve of the London Olympics, the leadership also likely hopes that public attention will be absorbed watching the Chinese team, instead of circulating political gossip, Mr. Li said.
Given that the party congress is still unscheduled and likely several months away, the leadership has time to dispatch Mrs. Gu's and Mr. Bo's cases and allow public interest to flag in the interim, he added.Before his fall, Mr. Bo was one of China's most powerful and charismatic politicians.
The son of a revolutionary veteran and party secretary of the metropolitan area of Chongqing, he was thought to be destined for a seat in the leadership's inner sanctum, the Politburo Standing Committee.