China’s ruling Communist party has acknowledged the damage it has suffered from the scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, the flamboyant former party secretary of Chongqing who was purged in April

The case had “greatly tarnished the image of the party and the nation and has had a grave impact on Chongqing’s reform and development,” said Zhang Dejiang, a vice premier who replaced Mr Bo as Chongqing party secretary in March.

The remarks contrast with earlier attempts to smother debate of the scandal to minimise its impact on the party’s once-in-a-decade leadership succession planned for this autumn.

Mr Bo, once a contender for one of the seats on the nine-member standing committee of the politburo, the apex of political power in China, had his central committee and politburo membership suspended in April.

The party said he was being investigated for alleged “severe discipline violations”, normally code for corruption, and also named his wife, Gu Kailai, as a suspect in the alleged murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman and Bo family confidante who had been found dead in a Chongqing hotel last year.

In February, Wang Lijun, former Chongqing police chief and right hand man of Mr Bo, fled to the US consulate general in Chengdu offering details about the alleged Heywood murder after his investigation of the case had ruined his relationship with Mr Bo.

It is unclear what charges Mr Bo might face or indeed if his case will ever come to trial.

Officials and businesspeople in Chongqing have separately accused the former party secretary of nepotism, corruption and abuse of power.

Lawyers, scholars and people prosecuted during Mr Bo’s time as the city’s party chief, have pointed to a breakdown of the judicial system with torture and severe irregularities in judicial procedure. Sources have accused Mr Bo of conspiring against other party leaders.

Addressing Chongqing’s Communist party congress, which is meeting to hammer out the municipality’s main policies, Mr Zhang said Chongqing’s “achievements” needed to be separated from the Wang Lijun incident, the death of Mr Heywood and Mr Bo’s alleged misbehaviour.

The remarks come amid rising expectations of a next move against Mr Bo and Ms Gu.

Ms Gu’s family has asked Shen Zhigeng, a lawyer famous for defending officials in corruption cases, to take up her case and officials in Chongqing said the police investigation was expected to wrap up later this month.

Mr Bo’s case is still in the hands of the party’s discipline inspection commission, an institution that deals with officials suspected of wrongdoing before the judiciary gets access to their cases.

“If one of the suspects in the Heywood case names him as having known of the murder, he will become part of the criminal case – that would get very messy,” said a provincial-level prosecutor who specialises in graft cases.

Officials in three provinces said the party was currently considering holding the 18th congress as early as August. Mr Zhang himself is expected to gain a seat on the party’s next standing committee.

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