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Originally published Tuesday, August 7, 2012 at 5:04 AM

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Chinese unaware of events on eve of murder trial

One of China's most politically charged murder trials starts here Thursday. But talk to the student at the cafe, the female taxi driver, the software salesman and the flower seller - none of them has any idea that the courtroom in an imposing building not far from the downtown of this grimy industrial city is about to become the center of China's political universe.

Associated Press

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HEFEI, China —

One of China's most politically charged murder trials starts here Thursday. But talk to the student at the cafe, the female taxi driver, the software salesman and the flower seller - none of them has any idea that the courtroom in an imposing building not far from the downtown of this grimy industrial city is about to become the center of China's political universe.

As everywhere in the country, the talk in Hefei is more about China's medal tally at the Olympics (53 so far) than the drama surrounding Gu Kailai, who is accused of murdering a British businessman, when her husband Bo Xilai ruled the roost as the Communist Party boss of Chongqing metropolis.

Gu's case may have riveted the international community, but it is barely causing a ripple among ordinary Chinese, underscoring how far removed such high-stakes political maneuvering is from their lives.  The lack of awareness points in part to the government's relative success with censorship and limiting media exposure of the case, which has embarrassed the Communist Party ahead of its carefully managed once-a-decade reshuffle of power later this year. Bo was a contender for a top job until his downfall earlier this year.

"I rarely pay attention to such news because politics has very little to do with my own life," said Gong Genwu, a 23-year-old computer software salesman who was strolling back to work after lunch outside a shopping mall across from the Hefei Intermediate People's Court.

Gong said this was the first time he had heard about the trial and even Gu's name. Pressed for an opinion on the scandal as a whole, he added: "What can I say? If a murder really was committed by someone close to a high official, this shows that they are on a different level than ordinary people. Perhaps some of them lack morals."

As the party boss of Chongqing, Bo was prominent, powerful and popular. Lawyer Gu - even though she didn't have an official role in the party - wielded enormous influence thanks to her husband.

Their life fell apart when an aide to Bo fled briefly to an American consulate in February, apparently with evidence of the Bo family's involvement in the death of Neil Heywood, a British businessman who had dealings with Gu. That resulted in Bo's removal from key posts and an April announcement that Gu and a household aide were chief suspects in the Briton's murder.

Various unconfirmed theories abound online as to why the trial is being held in Hefei, capital of Anhui province. Key among the leadership's considerations could be to move the case away from Bo's influence in Chongqing and the heavy political shadow of Beijing.

"In Chongqing, people would have said there is a local bias either for or against," said Francois Godement, a China politics expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "In Beijing, it would have been a high profile political case."

Also, Wang Shengjun, the head of China's Supreme People's Court, the country's highest court, was once in charge of Anhui's judicial system. All courts in China are under the control of the Communist Party, but the link with Wang may be one reason Hefei was picked for the trial.

These speculations are of little concern to ordinary Chinese, especially when they are engrossed by the medal-sweeping performance of their athletes at the London Olympics and the tragedy of athlete Liu Xiang, who crashed to the ground during his 110 meters hurdles race on Tuesday.

"I've been mostly keeping up with news about the Olympics," said Tang Chaoli, 22, a bank worker, who added that he had read about Gu's case in a newspaper but was unaware that the murder victim was a foreigner. "I haven't paid attention to the details of the murder case."

Asked if he might try to attend the trial, Tang said with a laugh: "No way. I have to go to work."

In any case, trials like this are generally behind closed doors. Some British diplomats are expected to attend, but international media will be kept away.

An AP photographer arriving in the city of 7.5 million people - 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from Chongqing and a two-hour flight south from Beijing - was followed from the airport to a hotel and filmed while he was checking in on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday, traffic was light and aside from several police cars parked around the court and the government building, security seemed minimal.

The government has curtailed reports on the case to brief announcements by the main propaganda outlets, Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television. Searches for Bo and Gu's names on China's hugely popular microblogs, where millions of users share information, opinions or vent, have been blocked for months. Even searches for "Hefei Intermediate People's Court" now turn up results that are partially blocked.

In China, ordinary people generally shun public discussion of political issues, knowing that they can be a minefield in which the boundaries of fair speech are unclear under the authoritarian government's strict controls.

The Hefei courthouse, an imposing building fronted by a flight of stairs, is situated in the city's new civic district about 10 kilometers (six miles) southwest of the downtown area and the parks that make up the city's main tourist attractions. The district comprises office buildings and construction sites that center around the Hefei city government offices.

A student working on his laptop at a cafe across the street from the court said he had heard of Gu but not the trial, and was too busy studying to care. A woman taxi driver had never heard of Gu, or Bo, or the trial. So said a keeper of a flower shop down a nearby lane as well as a bottled drinks seller and a man flying a kite in a park by a lake.

Most, like the bank worker Tang, explained that the case had no relevance to them.

"Politics is so tiring. It's so distant from normal people's lives," he said.

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Associated Press writer Didi Tang contributed to this report from Beijing.

Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter: http://twitter.com/gillianwong

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