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Opinion: Pre-meditated verdict in Bo Xilai case

Life in prison for Chinese politician Bo Xilai: the sentence was harsher than expected. It conveys the message that anyone who breaks the Communist Party's unwritten rules will be punished, writes DW's Matthias von Hein.

This court case was never about specific corruption charges. The sums of money in question, despite being in the realm of a six-digit euro amount, are ludicrously low by Chinese standards. It was always rather about political motivations. This is a scenario that has been played out before in Chinese courtrooms. Sidelining political opponents through corruption charges is a favored technique in inner-party power struggles.

Despite this, many things were unusual about this particular lawsuit. Bo was a member of the Politburo and defended himself vehemently. The trial lasted unusually long. The court provided glimpses into the proceedings via a microblogging website, even though some of them were censored.

Matthias von Hein (Photo: DW/Per Henriksen)

Matthias von Hein, head of DW's Chinese department

China's courts are not independent bodies - they take orders from the ruling party. In a case as prominent as that of Bo Xilai, these come from the highest ranks - from the board of the Politburo. Especially political trials are normally strictly orchestrated. They typically last two days, with the defendant presenting him/herself as guilt-stricken and remorseful. At the end, the pre-formulated verdict is announced.

However, Bo Xilai stayed true to himself. He didn't stick to the script, withdrew a previous confession and ridiculed the witnesses. Through these actions he forced the Communist Party's leaders to think about the verdict one more time. The fact that his trial lasted nearly four weeks shows how much support Bo still enjoys and how hard it was to reach a consensus. But now the message seems to be that there's no division within the party. The authority of the leadership is not in question. Whoever breaks the unwritten laws gets penalized.

Laws have never been part of Bo Xilai's realm. Going against the convention within the Communist Party, which had laboriously managed to push through its "collective leadership" concept, he drew attention to himself, acted in a populist fashion and appealed directly to the people. His privileged background as the son of a revolutionary veteran gave him the confidence to approach things differently from his party opponents. In this way he made many powerful enemies. But because he addressed the growing inequality in Chinese society and targeted the losers of the modernization process, he became a popular leading figure of the "New Left" movement.

Bo has ten days to appeal against the judgment and it's expected that he will do so. But it's doubtful whether he will ever again get a chance to air his views like he did in the Jinan courtroom. The Communist Party leaders seem to have decided to keep Bo out of politics for good. But one of the great ironies of this story is the fact that Bo Xilai has been an advocate of neo-Maoist politics under new president Xi Jinping. He has launched various Maoist-style campaigns, promoted a return to the ideology of the Cultural Revolution and opposed bloggers and critical intellectuals. In a way, it was a case of intellectual property theft at the highest level.

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