A few days before former politburo member Bo Xilai was found guilty of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power, he is purported to have written a letter to his family.
“I will wait quietly in jail,” it read, according to excerpts printed in the South China Morning Post. “My father was jailed many times. I will follow in his footsteps.”
The author had no doubt he was going to prison. The question was, for how long?
Bo’s crimes could have carried the death penalty. However, a lacklustre performance by the prosecution led many to think a lesser term might be imposed. The fact that the amount of money involved was less than that taken by former railways Minister Liu Zhijun led others to predict that Bo would be jailed for ‘just’ 15 to 20 years.
So when the court in Jinan announced a life sentence for bribery (topped off with 15 years for embezzlement of public funds and seven more for abuse of power), many were surprised. (Though not necessarily us. In issue 204 WiC predicted it was “most likely” he would receive a life sentence so as to neutralise him politically.)
In announcing their verdict, the judges said Bo’s actions had “created malign social consequences and gravely harmed the interests of the state and the people.”
According to reports Bo may have been shocked by the verdict himself, shouting that it was “unfair” as he was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. He has since appealed. Given that the sentence will have been decided by the highest ranks of the Communist Party, that looks like a futile gesture.
Experts say the severity of the sentence stems partly from Bo’s defiant stance throughout the trial and the fact that he retracted earlier confessions in court.
Another factor is Xi Jinping’s political agenda. Some speculate that Xi is planning to push through a raft of economic reforms that Bo and his supporters from the “new left” might have opposed.
Xi and his economist premier Li Keqiang may begin asking for these changes – which could include more interest rate reforms – at the Party plenum in a few weeks.
“This case had little to do with corruption. It’s a political case,” Reuters quoted Zhang Ming, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, as saying.
Bo’s personal assets were also confiscated and he was deprived of his political rights for life.
It is theoretically possible (though not likely) that Bo might become eligible for parole in 12 years’ time, though even then he would continue to live under some form of house arrest. But those hopes could be forlorn unless there is a change in the political wind and he is rehabilitated, just like his father Bo Yibo was.
Such was the sensitivity of the Bo case that the mainland media ran boilerplate copy seeking to portray the trial as evidence that the leadership is serious about tackling corruption. Other editorials celebrated the outcome as proof that China has the rule of law. Many outside China interpreted things a little differently. “Far from representing legal progress in China, Bo’s trial has confirmed once more that in the eyes of the Party, the law remains a tool of control,” warned Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, in a blog post.
Further evidence that political imperatives often trump legal process in China may be provided by the trial of Ding Yuxin (also known as Ding Shumiao). She stands accused of channelling illegal funds to Liu Zhijun, as well as providing him with a succession of mistresses. Ding is said to have received the minister’s help in arranging more than 50 railway construction contracts for companies she had recommended.
But according to the South China Morning Post, an earlier version of Ding’s indictment claimed she had also tried to facilitate Liu’s rise up the Party hierarchy by bribing more senior officials. It is thought Liu hoped to be promoted to vice premier, one notch above his ministerial position.
The Hong Kong-based newspaper said it was the first time an official at such a senior level had confessed to trying to further his career through bribery. But in later versions of the charge sheet against Ding these details were removed, the newspaper said.
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