As expected, Bo Xilai, the disgraced former party boss of Chongqing and a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, was found guilty of corruption and abuse of power by a court in the city of Jinan on September 22. Despite a dramatic and vigorous self-defense put up by Bo during his four-day trial in late August, the three-judge panel, who had no real discretion in determining Bo’s fate, was not swayed. That politics, not the law, was in charge of the trial of Bo was made subtly clear by two minor but revealing oddities about the manner in which the verdict itself was announced. Normally, such verdicts are made public on a workday, but September 22 was a Sunday. Unless we believe that Chinese judges are an unusually hardworking lot and the Bo verdict had to be announced on a day usually reserved for rest and relaxation, it is safe to assume that they were instructed by higher authorities to issue the verdict on that particular day. There is further evidence that the verdict originated in Beijing, not Jinan, because the official news agency, Xinhua, reported the verdict roughly 40 seconds before the court released it via its weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter).
If a guilty verdict for Bo was predetermined by his former colleagues and political rivals, the severity of his sentence – life imprisonment – did catch many by surprise. After Bo’s trial, most analysts expected him to get between 15 and 20 years because the other two Politburo members purged before him received, respectively, 15 and 18 years. To add insult to injury, Bo was shown, after the verdict was read, handcuffed and crestfallen. This little theatrical touch was apparently designed to humiliate the once-swaggering princeling who refused to admit guilt or show repentance during his trial. (Again, neither of the two former Politburo members was shown in handcuffs.)
So there is one plausible conclusion to be drawn from Bo’s sentence. He received a harsh sentence not because of the substance of his crimes. In fact, the three charges against him – embezzlement, bribery and abuse of power – excluded the worst acts he perpetrated as the party boss of Chongqing. During his four-year reign as the city’s unchallenged ruler, Bo sent many innocent businessmen to jail and confiscated their assets on trumped-up charges of association with the mafia. Some of them were executed. Had Bo been charged with these crimes and convicted, a life sentence would seem positively lenient.
If Bo’s ambition, aggressiveness and ruthlessness threatened his rivals and constituted his real crime, he compounded his offense with a rare display of public defiance against the party during his trial. For a party that does not brook any challenge to its authority, Bo must be punished severely to deter future imitators.
That leaves us the question of whether a life sentence truly means the end of Bo. At the moment, the conventional wisdom is that Bo is finished, both politically and personally. There is simply no way he could make a comeback.
This assessment, however, does not consider two possibilities. The more likely scenario is that Bo still has influential friends inside the regime. They could intercede in a few years to seek a quiet medical parole for him, even though under Chinese law Bo will not be eligible for medical parole until he has served 13 years of his life sentence. But we all know the malleability of Chinese law under one-party rule. The less likely, albeit conceivable, scenario is a revolutionary event in China that fundamentally alters the status quo. Bo’s supporters may gain enough power in such a scenario to free him from jail and revive his political career. Obviously, this must happen before Bo becomes too old and infirm. Since fallen senior Chinese officials continue to receive excellent healthcare and accommodation in jail, Bo should fare physically better than most inmates.