The conviction of former Chongqing party leader Bo Xilai (薄熙來) was less about eradicating the ubiquitous corruption in the country and more about warning Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cadres to stay loyal to the new leadership or suffer the consequences, observers say.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), 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 big-hitters could be targeted.
State media on Monday universally applauded the outcome of Bo’s trial, which ended on Sunday with the disgraced party boss 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.
However, 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 devoured 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 a British businessman Neil Heywood for which Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai (谷開來), was convicted.
The former elite member of the CCP’s politburo was convicted of taking 20.4 million yuan (US$3.3 million) worth of bribes.
It is an amount that pales into insignificance compared with the huge fortunes alleged to have been amassed by the families of Xi and former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) in investigations by US media, said David Zweig from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Yet Zweig said that the objective of Bo’s trial was not to uncover corruption, but to ensure that he was silenced. 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,” Zweig 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 asceticism 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 in November last year.
“I think this is, in reality, a political battle,” one poster on Sina Weibo said. “Since the [CCP’s] 18th Party Congress, you must eliminate all the threats against the new leadership to ensure a smooth transfer of power.”
Bo staged a feisty deference in court that surprised many observers. 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: “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, Zhou Yongkang (周永康), a recently retired former member of the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee.
The former security tsar served on the then nine-member super elite committee until November last year, but Willy Lam (林和立), a expert on China’s politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said a move to investigate him is highly unlikely.
“With Bo, Xi Jinping has made his point,” Lam said. “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.”
Bo’s leftist revival during his tenure as boss of the southwestern mega-city of Chongqing saw thousands of officials sent to the countryside to get closer to ordinary people and the staging of mass concerts with “red songs” praising former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東).
After his downfall, factions in the upper echelons of the CCP were reportedly split on how to handle him and a year-and-a-half passed following his detention before he went on trial.
“Many Chinese people liked Bo for his populist approach to politics and policy,” said Mary Gallagher, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. “His tendency to look for popular support hurt him with his colleagues, but I think it gave some citizens the taste for more democratic politics.”
However, the lurid allegations that captivated the nation only implicated his inner circle and close family, underscoring Beijing’s tight control of the legal process.
“We have seen some kind of agreement — to not touch on intra-party struggles, to not implicate senior leaders — that certainly shows that the party is still in charge of the judiciary,” said Joseph Cheng (鄭宇碩) from the City University of Hong Kong.