BEIJING – Ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai’s prospects of an eventual comeback evaporated Sunday after he was sentenced to life in prison and permanently deprived of all political rights, but aspects of his legacy may live on, experts said.
The charismatic former Politburo member surprised many observers by mounting a stout defense against charges of corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power during last month’s five-day trial, possibly in the hope that he might one day be politically rehabilitated, as his father, a veteran Communist Party leader, had been.
But the gamble did not pay off, analysts said, and provoked a stronger sentence than many had anticipated. Bo was found guilty on all three counts and in addition to his imprisonment, all of his personal assets are to be confiscated.
“He launched a big show of defiance for the sake of his own legacy,” said Willy Lam, a political expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, “but obviously that infuriated (Chinese President) Xi Jinping. That’s why he was punished, for his defiance, not for his corruption.”
On Sunday, Bo entered the court looking proud and confident, turning his head to smile at family members, but his expression seemed pained as the judge read the verdict and sentence, according to a video shown on Chinese television. He was finally led away in handcuffs flanked by two tall policemen, apparently selected to tower over the 185-cm politician.
Bo has 10 days in which to lodge an appeal if he so wishes, but his chances of success appear negligible, experts say. The Communist Party controls the court system and would have decided on the verdict in an important case like this well before it ever reached court, they say.
Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, was purged and imprisoned more than once during the topsy-turvy days of Mao Zedong’s rule, only to be rehabilitated and promoted to the position of vice premier later in his life. But these days, political fortunes do not rise and fall on a single leader’s whim, and Bo Jr. is sure to find a way back harder.
Bo had cast himself as a champion of Mao’s legacy while running the megacity of Chongqing, encouraging the singing of “red songs” lauding the Communist Party’s achievements, waging a campaign against organized crime and building affordable housing for the poor.
But his autocratic reign unraveled after the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in 2011, and the attempted defection to the United States of his police chief, Wang Lijun, the following year. His wife was subsequently convicted for Heywood’s murder and Wang was jailed for trying to cover it up.
Nevertheless, Bo is thought to retain significant support among grass-roots party cadres, and his politics — known as the Chongqing Model — have not been officially criticized.
Like Bo, Xi realizes that the memory of China’s founding father remains powerful, and he has cast himself as the true successor of Mao’s “man of the people” image.
Xi also understands that the yawning gap between rich and poor is undermining the party’s standing, and he is waging his own campaign against official corruption and lavish displays of wealth. Critics say he also is becoming as autocratic as Bo.
“Looking at what the government is doing, the Chongqing Model is expanding to the China Model,” political analyst Li Weidong said. “The two have many similarities, although Bo Xilai’s name will never be mentioned again.”
Yet there are differences between the approaches employed by Bo and Xi, particularly over economic policy. The Chong-qing boss was a strong supporter of state-owned enterprises, while the president appears to favor economic reforms that may see their power gradually eroded.
Neither supporters nor opponents of Bo seemed happy after the sentence was announced, underlining what a delicate balancing act it has been for the Communist Party to try one of its most senior leaders.
The life sentence did not satisfy Fang Hong, who was sent to a labor camp for a year in April 2011 for posting a joke online satirizing Bo and his police chief, Wang. “Bo Xilai didn’t receive a real trial,” he said. “He was protected by the party. His real crime, which is the restoration of Maoism, went unpunished.”
One supporter from Dalian, where Bo had served as mayor before moving to Chongqing, said the city had not been the same since he left in 2000, and added that he did not believe that Bo was guilty. “He was sentenced not because he is corrupt but because he lost in the political struggle,” said the 32-year-old, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “It’s meaningless for ordinary people, because the number of corrupt officials doesn’t decrease at all.
“His trial was just a performance, but no matter how nice the performance looks, our life is still hard.”
The entire case has been subject to particularly heavy censorship in China, and Sunday was no different. The news portal www.163.com indicated that nearly 14,000 comments had been posted on one story, but fewer than 500 were visible, nearly all of which praised the verdict.
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