Bo Xilai

All the world's a stage ... Bo Xilai, at his March media conference in the Great Hall of the People Photo: AFP

E very March, the Chinese capital comes to a standstill for the 10-day gathering of the National People's Congress at the Soviet-designed Great Hall of the People. Traffic is blocked, vagrants are swept from the city, lawyers and intellectuals are sent away or detained and media censorship steps up an extra gear, while journalists from the Xinhua News Agency interview their foreign counterparts about this showcase of democracy.

The fuss seems out of proportion for a legislature appointed by the Communist Party and which has never rejected legislation put before it. In recent years there have been, however, two flickers of transparency and political showmanship that the Beijing press corps learnt to look forward to. One was the closing press conference presided over by the leadership's lone advocate for democratic reforms, Wen Jiabao, which was the only opportunity that journalists had to ask real questions of a top-ranked leader and to expect a meaningful reply. The other was the appearance of Wen's ideological adversary: the rock star of Chinese politics, Bo Xilai.

At the time of the 2012 congress Bo was a provincial leader who was not a member of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, and yet he seemed to be setting the national political agenda.

Gu Kailai, wife of China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai

Gu Kailai, wife of China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai Photo: Reuters

Since being sent to run the Yangtze River metropolis of Chongqing in late 2007 he had draped himself in neo-Maoist iconography and led an orchestrated craze of ''red singing'' of patriotic revolution-era songs across the nation.

He had attracted unprecedented praise from several of his superiors - most notably from the incoming president, Xi Jinping - for a war he was waging against corruption, inequality and mafia-state collusion. He was seen as the custodian of the party's revolutionary ideals, fighting to live up to Mao's instruction to ''serve the people'', at a time when the party and the country had lost its way.

He had become the poster boy for socialism's true believers and a magnet for all who were attracted to the lure of rising power. Some who had grown up and risen through the ranks with Bo believed he wanted to ultimately eclipse Xi Jinping and become the most powerful man in China after the leadership transition of November 2012.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping

China's incoming president Xi Jinping Photo: AP

In previous years, Bo had been mobbed at the National People's Congress by the Hong Kong media. This year even local Chinese journalists swarmed to see him perform, although they would never be able to report a word, because they knew they would be watching history being made.

At this point, only a select few with high security clearances in China, the United States and close US allies were privy to the sordid allegations of bribery, brutality and murder that Bo's recently sacked police chief, Wang Lijun, had been levelling against the Bo family.

But everybody knew the great red hope of Chinese politics was in trouble and that his enemies were circling.

''The climate in Chongqing is very different from the climate in Beijing,'' He Guoqiang, the head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, had warned Bo and his supporters in the Chongqing room of the Great Hall, only days before.

''So I hope that everyone will take care against the cold and stay warm, and be careful to stay healthy.''

Bo kept the media waiting for the first week of the congress, skipped an important public session, and then on March 9 appeared without the customary notice in the Chongqing room. He was clearly tired, looking pale with bags under his eyes, after late-night sessions rallying his colleagues and negotiating his fate.

But there was no hiding the prodigious charisma and self-belief that had helped him to mobilise a large corner of the country, independent of central command, in a way that no other leader had done since 1949.

Wearing a sharp navy suit and yellow tie, he sat with his back against a spectacular photo-backdrop of Chongqing's neon skyline, as if to remind the crowd of the phenomenon he had built, while camera flashes lit up the room.

A month earlier, Wang, Bo's legendary right-hand man, had shown so little trust in both his patron and the Chinese justice system that he had fled into the arms of China's great rival, at the US consulate in nearby Chengdu.

Earlier that week, the President, Hu Jintao, had revealed his view of both Wang and the Americans by telling delegates that Wang had ''betrayed the country and gone over to the enemy'', according to a Chinese intelligence official.

Journalists assembled at the Great Hall expected that even Bo Xilai would have trouble spinning this one.

Bo donned a pair of spectacles to read perfunctorily from an official statement. ''First, I'll give you a standard response,'' he said, without hiding his disdain for having to stoop to the vacuous party-speak that was standard fare for most of his colleagues, except Wen. ''Wang Lijun is being investigated by the relevant central agencies …'' Then he set aside his prepared statement, took off his glasses and made eye contact with the journalists who had jammed in to see him, while hundreds more were locked outside.

Bo raised an open hand, as if swearing in a court of law, and told how, ''speaking from my heart'', he had never held any national leadership ambitions beyond his work in Chongqing.

In the next breath he pointedly revealed that China's national Gini coefficient - the sensitive worldwide inequality measure, which had not been publicly released in a decade - had risen to the alarming level of 0.46, which stood in obvious contrast to the diminishing rich-poor gap he had been boasting of in Chongqing. He brazenly suggested Hu should come to Chongqing to personally inspect what he had achieved. Bo was tolling the bell on a social and political crisis and holding himself out as the saviour of the Communist Party, socialism and the nation.

Bo knew the party had never had the courage to seriously apply the law to its own children. His performance was an act of defiance worthy of his father, who had been jailed by the Kuomintang and ''knocked down'' twice by his comrades-in-arms and still returned to power and outlived them all. In 1954, when Bo and the People's Republic were both five years old, Bo's father had been accused of the same character flaws that the son was criticised for now.

Bo Yibo, who had been minister of finance, possessed ''bourgeois individualist ideas and working style'', he ''likes to make decisions arbitrarily'' and colleagues must be wary of his ''arrogance and rashness'', said his critics.

He was accused of being too far to the right because he had proposed equal tax treatment for private and state-owned firms. Later, early in the Cultural Revolution, Bo Yibo was brutally purged and accused of being a ''capitalist roader''. Neither father nor son allowed themselves to be caught on the liberal side of consensus again.

Bo Yibo led the 1987 conservative attack on China's most liberal and popular leader, Hu Yaobang, opening the post-Mao ideological cleavage that reverberates today.

Xi Zhongxun, the father of China's president-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, was the only elder who spoke up in Hu's defence - increasing a rivalry with Bo Yibo that spanned most of his career in government. Hu was airbrushed from official history, but the core of the present and incoming leadership have continued to quietly honour Hu's legacy.

The lesson Bo Xilai learnt from his father's bruising career - as victim and then aggressor - was that it was always the reformers who were torn down, while those on the left were forgiven for the sorts of honest mistakes that revolutionaries make.

''If a new capitalist class is created, then we'll really have turned onto a wrong road,'' Bo warned, rising to the climax of his final press conference and echoing the ''capitalist roader'' accusation that had once been made against his father. He even recited a popular Mao-era poem: ''Dare to fight for the high ground with these devils; Never give an inch to the overlords.''

''Destroy me if you dare,'' he seemed to be saying to his leadership peers, who were no doubt watching every word. He was calculating that those loyal to the memory of Hu Yaobang would not challenge the 25-year ascendancy of conservative political ideology. The stage was set for Vice-President Xi Jinping to take the upper hand in his family's six-decade tussle with the House of Bo.

The losers in Chinese politics do not fall so gently. The Bo family entered 2012 insulated from law and public scrutiny, but now it is subject to the whims of Communist Party justice. Bo is in the process of being purged, without access to lawyers or friends or any hope of a transparent trial.

Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, is languishing in a jail as a common criminal, after being convicted of murdering an important English patron of her son, Bo Guagua. The case against her was ''irrefutable'', said the official Xinhua News Agency, before the trial began.

And Bo Guagua is marooned in the US, apparently studying to enter law school, and pondering the family's proven capacity for political resurrection.

The purge of Bo Xilai has been so far mild compared with the days when political rivals were tortured, exploded in plane crashes or imprisoned and left to die in their own vomit.

The novelty of this one is that it is being acted out in the midst of China's information revolution and in front of an increasingly prosperous, educated and sceptical population.

The political explosion of Bo Xilai is blowing open the black box of Chinese politics and laying bare a world of staggering brutality, corruption, hypocrisy and fragility. For the first time, the webs of power and money that bind and also divide China's red aristocracy are being exposed for the world to see.

The demise of Bo Xilai has opened cleavages in the party along factional, ideological and personal lines. The battle over how to frame his legacy has become a proxy war for China's future. The scars that are opening date back to the Cultural Revolution, when Bo Xilai and his colleagues were coming of age.

This is an edited extract from The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo by John Garnaut, published as an e-book Penguin Special.

John Garnaut is the Herald's China correspondent.