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A political demise

Gabriel DomínguezSeptember 23, 2013

Despite mounting a spirited defense at his trial, a Chinese court sentenced disgraced politician Bo Xilai to life in prison for graft - a ruling that symbolizes the political death of the former CPC star, experts say.

Ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai sits in court on the third day of his trial in Jinan, Shandong Province, in this still image taken from video shot on August 24, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
Image: Reuters

Bo was one of China's top politicians. He was a member of the elite politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and party secretary of the city of Chongqing, the country's largest city with some 30 million residents. Son of a close comrade of Mao Zedong, he belonged to the Communist aristocracy and had realistic ambitions of making it into the China's highest circle of power: the Politburo Standing Committee, with its seven members.

But Bo's downfall in March 2012 - triggered by his wife's involvement in the murder of a British businessman a year before - sent shock waves across the Chinese political establishment. In fact, it had such an impact that the transfer of power to the next generation of leaders last autumn came to a temporary standstill.

Almost one year later, the Jinan Intermediate People's Court convicted Bo of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power, a move that seemingly marks the end of the high-flyer's political career, according to experts.

On September 22, Presiding Judge Wang Xuguang sentenced the former leader to life in prison after finding him guilty of taking over 20 million yuan (US$ 3.2 million) in bribes. He also sentenced Bo to 15 years in prison for embezzlement and seven for abuse of power.

China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai looks on during a meeting at the annual session of China's parliament, the National People's Congress, at the Great Hall of the People (Photo: Reuters)
Bo's downfall in March 2012 sent shock waves across the Chinese political establishmentImage: Reuters

According to the Jinan court's page on Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the 64-year-old was furthermore deprived of his political rights for life and all his property was confiscated.

A pre-ordained ruling?

For many experts, the outcome of the Bo Xilai case was likely pre-ordained. "The legal verbiage pronounced in the Jinan court was mere theater," said China scholar Perry Link. The expert from the University of California, Riverside believes the ruling was the result of complex and finely-tuned political decisions by Chinese President and CPC chairman Xi Jinping and others at the top in China.

Still, the life sentence conviction came as a surprise to many analysts. Leading up to the announcement of the verdict, the majority consensus was that the leftist politician would receive 15-20 years in prison; a sentence lenient enough to prevent an outcry from his supporters, but sufficient for President Xi to continue building his political authority.

Margaret Lewis, an expert on China's legal system at Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, USA, says the harsh verdict not only indicates that Bo has strong enemies among the Chinese leadership, but also that the long-held saying of "leniency for those who confess, severity for those who resist" still holds true.

A spirited defense

During his trial Bo fiercely denied the charges brought against him and was allowed to launch a spirited defense. He even compared one of the prosecution's witnesses, businessman Tang Xiaolin, to a "mad dog" who appeared to have "sold his soul."

This won the 64-year-old additional admirers in China and seriously called into question parts of the prosecution's case, said Rebecca Liao, a China analyst based in California. The corporate attorney is of the opinion that, "on the one hand, Bo's fierce defense could be taken as signs of his strength. But on the other hand, "they also probably hardened Xi's resolve to put away any further discussion of Bo's political future."

Bo's options: appeal or parole

Bo has already informed the court that he would appeal the conviction, according to media reports. However, legal expert Lewis believes it is highly unlikely that an appeal in Bo's case would result in any adjustment of his sentence. "Appeals are rarely successful in criminal cases and, considering that Bo's sentence was no doubt already approved by the highest leaders, it is hard to imagine what new information would come up on appeal that would result in a reduction in the sentence."

Lewis also pointed out that, although the Jinan court convicted Bo to life in jail, under Chinese criminal law, he could be granted parole after thirteen years. Furthermore, the law also provides procedures for parole sooner than based on jail time actually served as well as the possibility of medical parole, she added.

Xi's message

Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported earlier that Bo had written a defiant letter from prison vowing to clear his name and comparing his situation to that of his father, a political prisoner who was later rehabilitated and became an influential leader.

Analysts are of the opinion, however, that it is unlikely for Bo to return to the political arena. "There would have to be a major political turn in the 'leftist' direction in China for him to come back," Link said.

China's President Xi Jinping attends a welcome ceremony for his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing August 19, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
The Xi-led Chinese government has launched corruption investigations into several top party membersImage: Reuters/Jason Lee

This view is supported by Liao, who adds that the Bo Xilai case has showed everyone within the CPC what President Xi’s political intentions are. "By launching extensive investigations of Bo's political allies, most recently former associates of his patron Zhou Yongkang at China National Petroleum Corporation, Xi has made it clear to Communist party cadres that they are to fall in line," Liao said.