BEIJING – Ousted Chinese Communist Party official Bo Xilai was found guilty of corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power Sunday and sentenced to life in prison.
“The opinion of the defendant and his defense lawyers is not accepted by the court,” said the presiding judge in the eastern city of Jinan, according to the intermediate court’s official microblog. “The court has decided to impose life imprisonment, deprive him of his political rights for life and confiscate all his personal assets.”
Bo was a member of the Communist Party Politburo and the charismatic party chief of the city of Chongqing. A rising star in Chinese politics, he revived the memory of Mao Zedong, cracked down on organized crime and made no secret of his national ambitions.
But the inner workings of his fiefdom were laid bare last year after his police chief, Wang Lijun, sensationally sought asylum in a U.S. consulate, making a series of damaging accusations about his former boss. The scandal became a huge embarrassment to the party, exposing deep divisions among its senior leadership as well as corruption and thuggery at the top levels.
At its heart was the tale of British businessman Neil Heywood’s death, which Chinese authorities had initially tried to blame on alcohol poisoning. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted last year of killing Heywood in 2011 and given a suspended death sentence, while Wang was given 15 years in prison for covering up the murder.
Bo was expelled from the party last September. On Sunday, he was convicted of having accepting bribes worth $3.6 million, of embezzling more than $800,000 in state funds and of obstructing the investigation into Heywood’s death. Speaking about Bo’s obstruction of justice in the Heywood case, Wang Xuming, the judge in Jinan, said, “It had a particularly bad influence on society and seriously damaged the interests of the nation and the people.”
Cheng Li, a China political expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the sentence “matches the scale of the corruption and also his refusal to admit the charges or cooperate. In Chinese law, if you do not cooperate, you will certainly be punished more severely.”
Trials of this nature in China are normally carefully choreographed, with the outcome decided long in advance. But Bo had confounded expectations by pleading not guilty to the charges and mounting a spirited defense, admitting only to having made “serious misjudgments” that had shamed his country.
Although foreign journalists were barred from the proceedings, the court in Jinan took the unprecedented step of posting detailed excerpts from the five-day trial, as well as videos and photos, in a live microblog.
The government has paraded this as a symbol of its openness, yet local journalists say their reporting about the Bo affair has been subject to unusually heavy censorship this year, while the same is true for comments posted on social media sites.
During the dramatic trial, Gu had testified against her husband in an 11-minute prerecorded video that laid bare the lavish lifestyle of the Communist Party elite, a lifestyle allegedly funded by bribes. Bo called his wife crazy and her evidence laughable, alleging that she had been forced to testify against him. In a final twist, he said the real cause of his downfall was a secret love affair that turned sour between his wife and police chief Wang, who had been his closest adviser.
During his time running Chongqing, Bo had advocated “red culture,” promoting Mao’s quotes and encouraging the singing of “red songs” celebrating the Communist Party’s achievements. He actively pursued foreign investment into the city but tried to narrow the gap between rich and poor with social policies including a program of public housing.
Those policies won him popular support, particularly among the poor, but he was brought down by the ruthless nature of his regime and his overt ambition for a greater role on the national stage, experts say.
His downfall both exposed and widened rifts at the top of China’s faction-ridden Communist Party. His prosecution and trial is thought to have involved months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between his former backers and his opponents within the party and has been one of the foremost challenges for President Xi Jinping since he took over as general secretary of the party in December.
Bo’s robust defense of his record made some experts wonder whether the 64-year-old was laying the groundwork for possible rehabilitation and a political comeback. That theory appeared to be bolstered last week when a letter supposedly written by Bo began circulating on the Internet, in which he vowed to wait patiently in jail until he was vindicated. It suggested Bo hoped to follow in the footsteps of his father, Bo Yibo, who was purged and imprisoned under Mao, only to re-emerge as a powerful party elder in the 1980s and ’90s.
Brookings’ Cheng Li said Bo appeared to be gambling on political “uncertainties” or upheavals in the future that might see his reputation restored.
“But even if there is political uncertainty, his chances of becoming a credible political player again are zero,” he said. “The trial revealed his arrogance, how he is out of touch, his family’s misdeeds. It transformed him from a charismatic leader to an ordinary person.”