BEIJING — No sooner did China's Communist Party dispense with the corruption trial of party boss Bo Xilai then it was forced to confront yet another case of privileged party elites accused of shocking crimes.
Li Tianyi, the 17-year-old son of a high-ranking member of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), is facing charges of raping a woman in a Beijing hotel with four other young men.
The trial is attracting perhaps more attention and anger from the public than even Bo because many see him as the product of spoiled aloof parents who have defended their son despite a history of bad behavior.
At age 15, the baby-faced Li crashed a BMW into another car, beat up the couple inside that vehicle, then dared onlookers to call the police — an incident that netted him a year in a correctional facility.
"He's typical of the phenomenon of the 'rich second generation,'" said Wang Jiarui, 21, a college student who has closely followed the case and who was shopping at a mall near the court.
"The facts and the evidence will show he is guilty, but also the pressure of public opinion is so heavy that there will be more anger and social contradictions if he is not convicted," she said. "Everybody feels society is not equal and our justice system is neither just nor open."
Such comments are probably not good news to a party that rules without the consent of the governed on the justification that it is doing such an excellent job managing the nation there is no need for democratic reform.
It was only this week that the crimes and scandals of disgraced senior official Bo Xilai were laid bare as the precursor to an almost certain verdict of guilty. The public was fascinated and horrified by tales of bribery, embezzlement, adultery, using police as shake-down artists and keeping a lid on his wife's poisoning murder of a British businessman.
But Li's case arguably stirs up stronger passions from a public angry at social inequity and sick of abuses of power by privileged families.
Li's father, Li Shuangjiang, 72, a high-ranking singer in the PLA and often called a "general," has appeared on TV programs for decades. His mother Meng Ge, 47, Li's second wife, is also a celebrated army singer.
After her stalwart defense of her son provoked online outrage here, Meng sparked further anger when she performed at a concert Wednesday night after the trial's first day.
Communist China has long celebrated its song-and-dance troupes established under Chairman Mao Zedong. Some soloists become national stars as they boom out patriotic songs at televised galas.
Peng Liyuan, wife of current Communist Party boss Xi Jinping, is a famous folk singer and the youngest-ever civilian major general in a PLA dance troupe. After several scandals involving these non-combatant performers, Xi moved this week to reduce their privileges, curb their commercial activities and forbid those of a certain rank from using titles such as "general."
In line with Xi's crackdown on corruption, the military must also curb "extravagance" at official galas.
Such privilege among higher-ups is at play in the Li case, and many are watching it to see how Chinese justice responds to the accusations of the unidentified woman.
Li's lawyers and family have waged a war of words that is not uncommon in the United States but unusual for China, where the courts are tightly controlled by the ruling Communist Party.
Li Zaike, lawyer for another suspect, say the woman, an adult, "entrapped" five children.
She "doesn't deserve sympathy from the whole of society. She should go to a detention center instead of a hospital," he said.
Although the trial was closed, the Beijing Evening News reported that Li denied the charges Wednesday. It said he admitted to "visiting a prostitute" on the night in question but that he fell asleep, drunk, before having sexual relations.
Li's lawyers and mother have alleged that the victim worked as a bar hostess in a Beijing club where the five young men went drinking Feb. 17, and that she went willingly to a hotel.
However, one of the accused teens said Li slapped the woman several times in a car en route to the hotel. The woman's lawyer, Tian Canjun, said she is under great psychological stress and has recently been hospitalized, the state news agency Xinhua reported.
Four of the five suspects pleaded guilty during the trial, which ended Thursday, and three apologized to the victim, court spokesman Fan Jun said at a news conference. Sentencing will happen at a later date.
Li is believed to be the one suspect not admitting guilt, according to the News.
The court's holding of a news conference was an unusual occurrence, an apparent response to the strong interest in the case and perhaps an attempt make it appear as if the Chinese justice system is open when in fact it is mostly closed to the public.
Authorities find they must pay more attention than in earlier decades to public opinion especially given the popularity in China of social media, which is rife with lively and influential comments despite official censorship.
"People want to know whether everybody is equal, whether relationships and background have any influence on the implementation of laws," Li Shaoqiang, a teacher and social commentator, wrote in the Shandong Business Daily newspaper last month.
"Many of my friends say 'execute him', but I don't agree," said Shi Zhangyan, 28, a finance manager who works close the court. "Look at corruption or other crimes, has the death penalty really helped to stop them?"
"The key in this case is whether our legal system is just or not. Based on past behavior, Li doesn't seem like a good person but the law must decide, with proper procedures," he said.
As for the singing, dancing soldiers, Shi sounds less tolerant.
"They are past their time," he said. "We don't need that kind of propaganda anymore."
Contributing: Sunny Yang