CHONGQING, China — Wen Qiang had a fondness for Louis Vuitton belts, fossilized dinosaur eggs and B-list pop stars. For a public employee in charge of the local judiciary, he also had a lot of money: nearly $3 million that investigators found buried beneath a fish pond.
But Mr. Wen’s lavish tastes were nothing compared with the carnal appetites of his sister-in-law, Xie Caiping, known as “the godmother of the Chongqing underworld.” Prosecutors say she ran 30 illegal casinos, including one across the street from the courthouse. She also employed 16 young men who, according to the state-run press, were exceedingly handsome and obliging.
In recent weeks, Ms. Xie, Mr. Wen and a cavalcade of ranking officials and lowbrow thugs have been players in a mass public trial that has exposed the unseemly relationships among gangsters, police officers and the sticky-fingered bureaucrats.
The spectacle involves more than 9,000 suspects, 50 public officials, a petulant billionaire and criminal organizations that dabbled in drug trafficking, illegal mining, and random acts of savagery, most notably the killing of a man for his unbearably loud karaoke voice.
But like all big corruption cases in China, this one is as much about politics as graft. The political machine in Chongqing, a province-size mega-city of 31 million people in the southwest, has been broken up by a new Communist Party boss, Bo Xilai, who is the son of a revolutionary party veteran and has his eye on higher office.
Mr. Bo, a former trade minister sent to Chongqing to burnish his managerial credentials, has conducted the crackdown in a way that appears devised to maximize national attention. The drawn-out nature of the trial and the release of lurid details of the criminal syndicate have given him a reputation as a leading corruption fighter, though the inquiry has yet to implicate any really high-ranking party officials.
So far six people have been sentenced to death. Ms. Xie got off relatively lightly, receiving an 18-year prison term on Tuesday.
How Mr. Bo’s performance is regarded by the party elite is a matter of speculation. There are some suggestions that his swagger, including boastful comments to the news media, strikes some fellow officials as excessive. Anticorruption campaigns by China’s one-party state are generally calibrated to show resolution in tackling venality, but also to reassure the public that whatever problems are uncovered are localized and effectively contained.
“These guys are all for fighting corruption, but they are a little alarmed by the way Bo Xilai has been going about it and building up his personality,” said Sidney Rittenberg, one of the few American citizens to join the Communist Party here and a confidant of Chinese leaders since 1944. “People I talk to say he’s getting too big for his britches.”
A so-called princeling whose father, Bo Yibo, was an economic planner and a onetime ally of the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, Mr. Bo, 60, is already a member of the Communist Party’s powerful Politburo. He is often talked about as a future top leader in Beijing, although in the party’s rigid hierarchy the No. 1 posts in the party and the government have already been assigned to other younger officials.
Recent statements by Mr. Bo suggest he understands the perils of drawing too much attention. Two weeks ago, he defended the crackdown, saying he was forced to act by the rampant violence and brazen criminality that had given this perpetually foggy city a reputation for lawlessness.
“The public gathered outside government offices and held up pictures of bloodshed,” he said. “The gangsters slashed people with knives just like butchers killing animals.”
In the three weeks since trials began, the crowds have continued to come, and their stories of bloodshed are indeed horrifying. They press outside the gates of the Fifth Intermediate Court, hoping to glimpse the orange-vested defendants who are paraded through the hearings.
Others desperately seek out reporters willing to hear tales of crimes unpunished. “The bandits used to live in the mountains; now they live in the Public Security Bureau,” said Zheng Yi, a vegetable wholesaler.
Unlike past sweeps that brought down crime bosses and their henchmen, the crackdown in Chongqing has yielded a number of wealthy businessmen and Communist Party officials, exposing the depth of corruption that has resulted from the mixing of state control and free-market economics in China.
Ko-lin Chin, who studies the intermingling of organized crime and government in China, said the line between legitimate business and illegal conduct had become increasingly blurred, although most official corruption involved bribery, not violence.