ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
An appropriate sentence for Bo Xilai
Publication Date : 24-09-2013
Former Chongqing party boss and disgraced politician Bo Xilai was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Chinese court on Sunday.
The punishment - no more and certainly no less - was a carefully calibrated one after taking into consideration various important political factors.
Bo was found guilty last month of taking bribes and embezzling funds amounting to 27 million yuan (US$4.4 million) as well as abuse of power. Under China's criminal law, anyone convicted of these crimes is punishable with life imprisonment, a deferred death penalty or an immediate death sentence.
The court's decision to hand down the life sentence is an appropriate one, given China's unique political situation. There are three reasons for this.
First, the sentence must be severe enough to deny Bo any chance of challenging President Xi Jinping as China's undisputed top leader in future.
Xi has been in power for less than a year, having taken over the reins of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and military in November last year and becoming president in March this year.
Bo was allegedly masterminding a plot to unseat Xi by next year so as to pave the way for his own ascension to the top job.
In China, a person sentenced to life in prison could, after two years, apply to have it commuted to a 20-year jail term. After serving 10 years, the prisoner is eligible for parole.
In other words, Bo could potentially be serving only a minimum 12 years in prison.
Keeping Bo behind bars is politically important for Xi, who would then be able to consolidate his power and govern unencumbered for the next 10 years.
Second, the sentence must be severe enough to serve as a warning to CCP members against deviating from the official party line.
The CCP views the Chongqing model of development that Bo had touted while he was communist party chief of the south-western municipality as a serious deviation from the political line adopted by the party central.
In the CCP lexicon, what he did was tantamount to "splitting the party" - an act that is strictly prohibited. Past experience has shown that anyone accused of splitting the party would be severely penalised.
Making an example of Bo is politically important for the CCP to uphold the authority of the party central.
Third, the sentence must be severe enough to convince the people that Xi was being very serious when he vowed to take down not just "flies" (corrupt low-ranking officials) but "tigers" - corrupt senior officials.
If Bo, a former Politburo member, had been given a lighter sentence, the punishment would have been considered unfair.
After all, two other past Politburo members - former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong and former Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu - had been jailed 16 years and 18 years respectively for corruption. The sums involved were much less than the 27 million yuan in funds that Bo was convicted of taking.
However, a harsher sentence than a life term would have gone against the tacit understanding among the ruling elites that a convicted Politburo member would be spared the death penalty. Worse, it would have created tremendous pressure for Xi from top-ranking party members.
Another consideration has to do with the residual support that Bo still enjoys within the CCP.
Barely a week before he was sentenced, Qiushi magazine, the official publication of the Central Party School, ran an article on its website that referred to him as a "national hero" indirectly. While Bo was not mentioned by name, the article cited a poem of his in which he says he will fight all his enemies to the last. The article concluded by saying that those who have this spirit should be hailed a national hero.
Although the article was removed from the website on the eve of his sentencing, that it appeared spoke volumes about the political undercurrents in China.
Since Bo is seen as a standard- bearer of Maoism, there would definitely be a backlash if his supporters view the sentence as being too harsh.
Therefore, the current sentence is careful to strike a fine balance, appeasing the Maoists at one end and the liberals at the other, both groups having support at the most senior levels of the CCP.
To the liberals, a life term is what Bo deserves. Former premier Wen Jiabao, alluding to Bo's Chongqing model, had stated emphatically that the 10-year Cultural Revolution unleashed by Mao Zedong could easily return to haunt China. Putting Bo behind bars for a long time would arrest the pace of a Maoist revival.
To the Maoists, there is still a chance of a potential political comeback after 12 years by their hero, who would be 75 by then. Their optimism stems from China's late patriarch Deng Xiaoping, who was already 73 when he made his political comeback in 1977.
On balance, Bo's sentence is severe enough to send a clear message to other members of the "princeling" group not to go against Xi, and lenient enough for Xi to preserve the delicate bond with these offspring of communist officials.
China's princelings remain a political force to be reckoned with and Xi, himself a member of this elite group, wants to get them on his side to shore up his own political legitimacy.
Thus, the handling of Bo's case has to be done just right.