China’s Fallen Politician Bo Xilai Sentenced to Life Imprisonment

The demise of the disgraced Communist Party official offered a rare glimpse of the corruption and infighting within China's political elite

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Xie Huanchi / Xinhua Press / Corbis

Bo Xilai, center, at the Jinan Intermediate People's Court in Jinan, capital of eastern China's Shandong province, on Aug. 26, 2013

There was no surprise turn. On the morning of Sept. 22, Bo Xilai — once one of China’s most coruscant politicians before his Shakespearean downfall — was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. The sentencing at the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court, the first time Bo was publicly seen in handcuffs, capped off a year-and-a-half-long scandal that allowed outsiders to glimpse the sordid subornation of China’s ruling Communist Party. Bo was also, as noted in the breaking news brief by Chinese state news agency Xinhua, deprived of his political rights for life.

Bo’s tale included plot points that the Bard himself would have discarded as straining even the most willing suspension of disbelief. There was murder by cyanide (by Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, of a British business consultant). There was a renegade police chief, Wang Lijun, who likely catalyzed the entire public scandal by fleeing briefly to a U.S. consulate in southwestern China (and who, it appears, was infatuated with Gu, despite her being his boss’s wife).

There was even a stray pair of shoes (the police chief’s) that ended up at Bo’s house (courtesy of his wife), causing Bo (who himself admitted to adultery) to take offense. “He hurt my family, he hurt my feelings,” Bo recalled of his onetime deputy, in a court transcript of his five-day trial last month. Not to be outdone, Wang, according to Bo’s testimony, slapped himself eight times in front of Gu to show his love or his frustration or some other inchoate emotion. (Gu was convicted of murder last year, and Wang is in prison too, for bribery and other offenses.)

Beyond the scandalous details — of which there were many in the rare edited court transcripts that were released to the public last month — the Bo case also gave the Chinese populace an opportunity to marvel at the political infighting plaguing a party that prefers to be viewed as a unified entity. Not to mention: if one of the government’s most charismatic politicians is yelling at his wife for bringing home her supposed paramour’s shoes, while consorting with multiple mistresses of his own, what does this mean for the respectability of a communist force that has ruled China for nearly 65 years? The fact that corruption clogs the gears of Chinese governance is something the public knows well — and understands even better now that microblogging sites allow some examples of official malfeasance to be aired. But do the lives of communist bigwigs have to be so sleazy and anodyne at the same time?

Bo, 64, avoided a death sentence, which could have been applied for some of the charges against him. In fact, although prosecutors tried to paint the former Politburo member as a prototypical corrupt cadre, the trial did not address the brawny fashion in which he ran the metropolis of Chongqing, where he is accused of having jailed those who displeased him with little regard to due process. Bo was popular among some locals for his retro embrace of Maoist flourishes. But he also made Chongqing his personal fiefdom, silencing potential dissidents and trampling over individual rights. Why were these alleged crimes not part of Bo’s rap sheet?

Despite Bo’s trial and sentencing, the ripple effects of his case continue. The purges in the highest echelons of power may not be done. In recent weeks, as President Xi Jinping has pushed an antigraft campaign, a corruption probe into PetroChina — the country’s largest state-owned energy firm — has gained pace. Top company executives have been detained and the stain of corruption is edging ever closer to China’s former security czar, Zhou Yongkang, who was reportedly one of Bo’s patrons. Rumors abound that Zhou is now under house arrest, but there’s no certainty about his fate. At least with Bo, he will likely remain locked up for the near term, although his parole is an eventual possibility. The deprivation of his political rights means that even if he were released for any reason, he would be banned from politics. But Chinese politics has a habit of churning out unlikely redemptions. To wit: Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who kick-started China’s market reforms, once languished in jail. Perhaps the tale of Bo Xilai has one or two surprises in store, after all.