Bo Xilai's Sentencing

Fallen Chinese leader Bo Xilai has finally received his punishment. Nearly a month after his trial ended, the controversial former Communist Party Secretary of Chongqing has been found guilty. In what is likely the concluding step in his political and personal downfall, Bo was found guilty of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power by the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court in Shandong Province. After some uncertainty and speculation over what punishment would await Bo, the court announced that Bo would receive a life sentence for the bribery charges, and twenty two years for the other charges, with the sentences to be served concurrently.

A life sentence is comparatively severe for an individual of Bo’s former position. Leaders who have previously fallen from similar political offices to Bo have received lighter punishments. Over the last few decades, the Party Secretaries of both Beijing and Shanghai were prosecuted and found guilty of corruption, receiving sentences of sixteen and eighteen years respectively. Yet Bo, who as Secretary of Chongqing occupied the same level as the leaders mentioned above, received a considerably lengthier sentence. There are several reasons for this, the most obvious one being how Bo conducted himself during the trial. The trial of a former leader in China is inherently a political process, and the goals of the regime, namely the swift resolution of the matter, would have been best served by a contrite and humbled Bo appearing before the court. In return for such behavior, a significant reduction in the length of the eventual sentence may have been offered. But Bo’s general attitude to the process was revealed when he refused to plead guilty, and did not show a great deal of remorse or contrition. While the former Shanghai Secretary entered a plea of not guilty, he did express some responsibility for the charges laid against him. In contrast, Bo mounted a spirited, and colorful defence. Bo appears to have made a confession while under detention during the investigation against him; he directly repudiated it in court, announcing that it was made in what amounted to a futile effort to save his political career.

But Bo went even further than recanting his confession by challenging and questioning the veracity of key pieces of evidence, and the competencies and motives of witnesses. In particular, Bo took aim at his wife, Gu Kailai, who appeared as a key witness for the prosecution. Dismissing her as mentally ill and a compulsive liar, Bo attempted to refute her testimony. Other pieces of evidence were dismissed as irrelevant. If Bo’s purpose was to gain some leverage by mounting a boisterous defence, it failed. Referring to his “whimsical” denials, prosecutors pointed to Bo’s lack of contrition when they recommended that he receive the maximum sentence.

Of course, even if Bo had pleaded guilty to all charges, it is questionable that he would have received a much lighter sentence. More than any of his contemporaries, Bo has been a deeply divisive figure, seemingly out of step with the vast majority of Chinese leaders. While leading Chongqing, Bo pursued a model of politics more akin to the mass campaigns of the Cultural Revolution. He was by far China’s best known provincial leader, seemingly on the fast track to national leadership. Through his policies and behavior, Bo made his ambitions to join the senior leadership of the Party quite clear. In a political system which preferences leaders with largely managed public profiles, Bo was an outlier. All of this conflicted with a national leadership keen to ensure the absolute loyalty of provincial leaders, and political stability leading to up to a sensitive and important leadership transition. Bo’s removal may have been opportunistic, but the speed with which he fell demonstrated how uneasy the vast majority of leaders were with the prospect of his elevation to greater power.

Despite having survived through many setbacks in his political career, it is unlikely that Bo will recover from this. He has ten days to appeal the verdict, a process which would not likely deliver a reduced sentence. Bo will likely be incarcerated in Qincheng Prison, a special facility for political prisoners near Beijing. He will be eligible for parole in about ten years, with it likely that he will not serve a full sentence. Any prospect of an early release would likely be contingent on Bo agreeing not to seek a public profile once out of prison. A political comeback would be impossible. At 64 years old, he will likely pass the mandatory retirement age for Chinese politicians of 70 while still incarcerated. As part of his sentence, he has been stripped of his political rights for life, and he has already been expelled from the Communist Party, which is a difficult process to reverse.

As Bo prepares for a lengthy stay in prison, the full political significance of the saga will begin to become apparent. Bo Xilai has proven himself to be just as defiant and unconventional in the face of reprimand as he was in the exercise of power. Regardless of how and when he is eventually released, we may hear from him again.