One of China’s most powerful political figures is facing allegations in a U.S. court that he directed a torture campaign against religious followers. The Bush administration is trying to get the case thrown out. Bo Xilai, the son of one of modern China’s most influential leaders, has thus far led a life of privilege and entitlement. It’s also been marked by controversy.

Bo Xilai, 58, is the eldest son of Bo Yibo, one of the so-called Eight Immortals, Communist Party leaders and revolutionaries who helped usher in China’s booming market-oriented economy. Bo Yibo was a friend of former Chairman Mao Zedong and an influential adviser to former Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin—relationships that have no doubt helped fuel Bo Xilai’s rise.

Though nepotism is frowned upon in China’s political establishment (the offspring of party leaders are often derided as “princelings”), it hasn’t derailed Bo Xilai, analysts say. He was mayor of the city of Dalian in the 1990s, governor of Liaoning Province thereafter and the country’s trade minister from 2004 to 2007. Today he’s the top official in one of China’s most populous cities, Chongqing, and a member of the country’s ruling Politburo.

Bo turned Dalian, formerly a sleepy backwater, into an economic powerhouse. He was responsible for “transforming the center of Dalian, with architectural styles reminiscent of the Mediterranean and Sweden, making it a unique city in China,” according to a report on the website for the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang. “Bo’s reputation as an effective and forward-thinking politician is based on his role in Dalian’s transformation.”

His success in Dalian earned him a promotion to the governor’s post in Liaoning. His subsequent reforms there helped the province become one of China’s largest industrial centers. The resulting economic boom, though, came against the backdrop of controversy.

Bo was appointed governor in the wake of a political corruption scandal in the province and, according to published reports, is said to be responsible for the imprisonment of a Chinese journalist. Investigative reporter Jiang Weiping wrote that Bo covered up corruption among friends and relatives while mayor of Dalian. Jiang was accused of revealing state secrets and, through his stories, inciting subversion. He served five years in prison and was freed in January 2006. The Bush Administration had pressed for his release.

In 2004, Bo was appointed minister of commerce, one of the country’s most visible and prestigious posts. China’s trade with the U.S. has since increased 67 percent, and China recently passed the U.S. as the world’s second-largest exporter with $1.2 trillion in goods in 2007, according to the World Trade Organization.

Late last year, Bo left the Commerce Ministry and was appointed Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, said to be the world’s fastest-growing urban center and considered to be China’s next boomtown (following the likes of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen). He also was promoted to China’s powerful Politburo, the country’s top decision-making body. Chongqing, a provincial-level municipality of 32 million people, has been referred to as “China’s Chicago” because, like Chicago once was, it is “a gateway to vast and largely undeveloped lands to its west, a hub where the traffic of roads, rail lines and waterways converged, and a center for business where ambition eviscerated risk.”

Bo is widely considered to be a rising star. He’s comfortable with the media and, given his success as China’s trade minister, equally comfortable with foreign officials and business leaders. There are rumors that he could one day become Premier. It remains to be seen whether this latest controversy will impede his ascent up China’s political hierarchy.

Shahien Nasiripour

Shahien joined CIR in 2008 and covers the federal judiciary. His work at CIR has been published by Truthdig, California Lawyer magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review. Previously, he worked as a researcher for ESPN and as a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and The Providence Journal. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California.