BEIJING – The conviction of disgraced top politician Bo Xilai was less about eradicating ubiquitous corruption in China and more about warning Communist Party cadres to stay loyal to the new leadership or suffer the consequences, observers say.
President Xi Jinping, who took office earlier this year, has vowed to tackle both low-level “flies” and high-ranking “tigers” in an anti-graft drive that has led to expectations that past and present political heavy hitters could be targeted.
State media Monday universally applauded the outcome of Bo’s trial, which ended Sunday with the former Chongqing party chief being jailed for life for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power.
“The sentence Bo received shows that no corrupt element is immune from the fight,” the China Daily said in one of many tough-talking editorials.
But despite his high-profile downfall, Beijing’s rhetoric is unlikely to be matched with action against endemic graft as long as the newly installed leadership can count on loyalty and obedience, experts say.
Bo’s spectacular fall from grace came after the 64-year-old became a standard-bearer for those who favored his populist left-leaning policies.
Observers say this became more of a threat to the legitimacy of the reform-minded political elite than the sensational scandal that engulfed him, including the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, for which Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted.
The former elite Politburo member was convicted of taking 20.4 million yuan ($3.3 million) worth of bribes.
It is an amount that pales in comparison to the huge fortunes alleged to have been amassed by the families of Xi and former Premier Wen Jiabao in investigations by U.S. media, said David Zweig from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
But he said that the objective of Bo’s trial was not to uncover corruption, but to ensure he was silenced, and that the ending of his political career has the broader aim of weakening the party’s left-wing elements.
“It is not just the standard purge,” he said. “He will spend a lot of time in jail. It is a message to the left they do not have someone they can rally around here. He is done for.”
The trial and sentence have been met with skepticism on China’s hugely popular microblogging sites, where users expressed the common view that top officials are routinely corrupt, and that the Bo case was driven by a new set of leaders installed last November.
“I think this is, in reality, a political battle,” said one poster on Sina Weibo. “Since the 18th party congress, you must eliminate all the threats against the new leadership to ensure a smooth transfer of power.”
Bo staged a feisty defense in court that surprised many observers, and his show of defiance was seen as a factor behind his heavy sentence.
He again erupted in anger when the life sentence was handed down, shouting out “Unfair!” and “Unjust!” according to the South China Morning Post. It did not say how it learned of the comments, which were not in official accounts of the closed-door hearing.
Speculation has mounted in recent weeks that Beijing could take the drastic step of targeting an even higher-ranking figure and Bo ally, the recently retired Zhou Yongkang.
The former security czar served until last November on the then-nine-member superelite Politburo Standing Committee, but Willy Lam, China politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said a move to investigate him is highly unlikely.
“With Bo, Xi Jinping has made his point,” said Lam. “Obedience to the party is more important to the party leadership than corruption.”
“All this going after big tigers is divisive and causes disunity among the factions, and this is why Xi will not go after Zhou Yongkang.”