Bo's life term is political death sentence as Xi marshals power

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Ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai, right, is driven from the Intermediate People's Court after being sentenced to life in prison, in Jinan, China on Sunday, Sept. 22. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai was sentenced to life in prison for corruption, bringing an end to a crisis that roiled China's Communist Party as the country's leaders prepare to lay out an economic reform agenda.

A court in eastern China found Bo, 64, guilty of taking 20.4 million yuan ($3.3 million) in bribes, embezzling 5 million yuan and abuse of power in a trial that exposed graft at the highest levels in the communist state. Bo's assets, most notably a French villa, will be seized by the state, the Jinan Intermediate People's Court said on its microblog today.

The party, led by President Xi Jinping, may have pushed for the life sentence to extinguish the threat Bo and his populist policies posed to its control, said Kerry Brown, executive director of the University of Sydney's China Studies Center. It was the harshest punishment of a former Politburo member since Chairman Mao Zedong's widow got the death sentence -- a punishment later commuted to life in prison -- in 1981.

"They will be glad that this is dead and buried, but I don't think anyone was fooled, and certainly it didn't seem like many in China were fooled by the fact that this was a political trial, not really a criminal trial," Brown said by phone. "His stain on Chinese politics will not be an easy one to erase."

The verdict precedes a party conclave in November where Xi and Premier Li Keqiang may push for economic reforms and seek to bolster their grip on power. The plenum is expected to discuss deepening reforms and achieving stable economic development, the official Xinhua News Agency reported last month. In that report, Xinhua said China's Politburo called on the party to "be brave enough to break down ideological barriers and vested interests."

Breaking precedent

Bo's trial, which ended Aug. 26, broke with precedent as the party let the court release edited transcripts of Bo's defense. Bo proclaimed his innocence during the trial, calling the bribery charges something "even the lousiest TV drama scriptwriter wouldn't create."

A photograph released by the Jinan court showed a smiling Bo being led away in handcuffs by two police guards clad in blue uniforms and clutching his forearms. Bo didn't say if he would appeal the verdict, court spokesman Liu Yanjie said at a briefing in Jinan today.

"The evidence is reliable and sufficient, and he is found guilty as charged," Liu said.

The party sought to control the narrative throughout, portraying the turmoil of Bo's ouster and charges as proof of its respect for the rule of law. The decision to release the transcripts was hailed as a sign of the party's transparency. Following the verdict today, the state-run China Central Television aired a special broadcast on the trial.

Trial footage

It featured footage from Bo and his wife Gu Kailai, whose role in the November, 2011 murder of British businessman Neil Heywood set off a chain of events culminating in the attempted defection of Bo's police chief in February 2012 and Bo's removal from his job as Chongqing Communist Party secretary the following month.

State media portrayed the case as evidence of leaders' seriousness about cracking down on graft that Xi has said threatens the Communists' six-decade hold on power. Party leaders have promised to target both "tigers and flies," or cadres up and down the power ladder, who are guilty of graft.

"The Bo Xilai sentencing is a warning: if there is graft, you need to clean it up, if there is corruption, it needs to be punished," the party's flagship People's Daily newspaper said in an online commentary after the verdict. "No matter how big the official is, how strong their power is, it is just as difficult to escape punishment by the law."

Touts success

Even as the party touts its success against corruption, authorities have arrested people such as legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, who sought asset disclosure by top officials, and reined in online commentators whose millions of followers on China's microblog service threaten to weaken the party's control over information.

Prosecutors' claims and Bo's testimony during his trial offered a rare glimpse into the inner conflicts of one of China's leading families. Bo's father, Bo Yibo, was one of the revolutionaries who brought the Communists into power in 1949.

Bo's sentence is more severe than those handed down to other former Politburo members. Ex-Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong, who died in June, was sentenced to 16 years in 1998 while former Shanghai Mayor Chen Liangyu got an 18-year sentence in 2008. If Bo appeals, he may get a lighter jail term, perhaps 20 years, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Appeal judgment

Bo has 10 days after he receives the judgment to appeal to the Shandong High People's Court. The Jinan court said the 5 million yuan Bo embezzled will be returned to the city of Dalian, where he was mayor.

The court found there was not sufficient evidence to prove allegations that Bo approved of 1.34 million yuan in flight tickets that businessman Xu Ming paid for Gu and her son with Bo, Bo Guagua, court spokesman Liu said.

In the month since Bo's trial, Xi's anti-corruption campaign has focused on people tied to Zhou Yongkang, until last year head of China's security services. Zhou praised Bo's achievements as the party boss of Chongqing municipality just days before Bo was ousted from the job.

Two days after the South China Morning Post reported Aug. 30 that Zhou was the target of a party corruption probe, Jiang Jiemin, then the head of the agency overseeing state-owned companies, was accused of "serious disciplinary violations," language that often precedes formal corruption charges. Jiang and Zhou were top oil executives who served together at an oilfield in eastern China from 1989-90, according to their official biographies.

Executives removed

In the days before the accusations against Jiang, four executives at China National Petroleum Corp. were removed from their posts as part of investigations by the party's graft watchdog. Jiang was chairman of CNPC until earlier this year and Zhou led the company in the 1990s as general manager.

Bo, a former commerce minister, governor and mayor, was removed from the Politburo after his police chief Wang Lijun fled to a U.S. consulate with evidence that Gu was involved in Heywood's murder.

Gu was given a suspended death sentence last year for murdering Heywood, while Wang was sentenced to 15 years behind bars for charges including attempted defection and taking bribes. The abuse of power charge against Bo was connected to the allegation that he tried to cover up his wife's involvement in Heywood's murder.

Made mistakes

Bo insisted during his trial that while he made mistakes in his career, he didn't commit any crimes, according to transcripts released by the court in Jinan.

He sought to discredit those who testified against him, calling his wife crazy, comparing a former businessman in Dalian to a wild biting dog and saying Wang had lied and was in love with Bo's wife.

In a letter to his family, Bo wrote that his name will be cleared one day, the South China Morning Post reported Sept. 19. Like his father, who was jailed and then rehabilitated, Bo said he would "wait quietly in prison," the SCMP quoted the letter as saying. "My father was jailed many times. I will follow in his footsteps."

Chongqing policies

Bo's policies in Chongqing, where he was party secretary from 2007 until March 2012, including a crackdown on organized crime, an emphasis on social spending and a revival of early Communist-era songs and slogans, drew praise from other leaders, including Xi.

It took Heywood's murder and Wang's attempted defection to bring down Bo, who may otherwise have had a major role in the new leadership, said Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

"Had the homicide case not occurred, obviously he would not have come to this," Yang said. "Today he could be wielding enormous power, in fact he himself might be overseeing the entire political and legal apparatus."

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