On Sunday morning, at the conclusion of Bo Xilai’s sentencing in Jinan, China, the court — which had been tweeting the proceedings to Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblogging platform — tweeted one last photo without comment. In it Bo, newly sentenced to life in prison for abuse of power, bribery and embezzlement, stands with his wrists extended outward, displaying the handcuffs that bind them. Posing on either side of him are two towering bailiffs with their white-gloved hands placed awkwardly but precisely on his shoulders and just above those wrists. They, in turn, are flanked by two smaller cops who look as if they’d prefer to be anywhere but Jinan. It’s a clumsy but unmistakable tableau of control, and it soon was picked up by media outlets across China.
But what’s most remarkable about the image is Bo’s broad smile as he’s posed and photographed beneath the bench. That grin is directed upward, presumably to the presiding judge, Wang Xuguang, whose verdict was almost certainly written and approved at the highest levels of power in Beijing by individuals — including President Xi Jinping — whom Bo has known for most of his life, and whom he had hoped to best politically. In Bo’s amused and mocking expression, one can see his contempt for the judge and the proceedings, which everyone in China has long known were a political charade.
To be sure, Bo’s five-day trial had all of the trappings of a proceeding held according to the rule of law. The defendant was allowed to cross-examine (and insult) witnesses; the court generated transcripts posted to the Internet via microblogs; the judges wore impressive robes. But a guilty verdict was pre-determined when Bo was detained and stripped of his posts and Communist Party membership in spring 2012. The only remaining questions were political: how much spectacle might be allowed, and what sentence would be rendered.
For Bo’s political rivals, little could be left to chance when it came to spectacle. He remains a wildly popular figure in Chongqing and among Chinese enamored of his ruthless crackdown on the city’s criminal syndicates during his five-year tenure as party secretary. Even after his arrest, and revelations of bribe-taking and an attempted cover-up to protect his wife from murder charges, he maintained his standing among a public long accustomed to far more serious charges against lesser officials.
Indeed, the $3.6 million in bribes that Bo was accused of hauling in is barely respectable compared to the $10.5 million in bribes that Liu Zhijun, China’s former rail minister was convicted in July of accepting. Few of Bo’s supporters would deny that he’s a scoundrel — just not as bad as the others. Even better, he — unlike his political superiors in Beijing — had managed what appeared to be a successful anti-corruption drive in Chongqing.
Those circumstances alone argued against an unpopular, perhaps inflammatory, death sentence that at least some of his political rivals surely hoped he’d be given. Add in the deep connections that Bo — son of one of China’s revolutionary founders — has to China’s Communist aristocracy, and it was guaranteed that he and his family would be sheltered from harsh, common justice. Nonetheless, Xi Jinping — a contemporary of Bo’s, and also a member of one of China’s revolutionary families — obviously had no interest in seeing the charismatic, attention-grabbing Bo mouth off freely in China while Xi attempted to rule.
At a minimum, Bo was guaranteed to land a sentence that extended past Xi’s likely 10-year term as president, and past the current age of eligibility for the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee that Bo aspired to join.
Xi also needed to show not only that he was capable of standing up to Bo’s partisans, but that he is serious in his crackdown on corruption. From this perspective, Bo’s concurrent sentences of life for corruption, 15 years for embezzlement and seven years for abuse of power, are perfectly tuned to meet Xi’s political needs. For all of his friends and fan club, Bo Xilai won’t be around to overshadow the dour Xi’s presidency.
Still, for all of the political expediency built into Bo’s sentence, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll spend his life behind bars; under Chinese law he’ll be eligible for parole in 13 years. By then, he’ll be in his mid-70s, and many of his patrons and his enemies will have passed on. No doubt he’ll relish the opportunity to leave prison and cast his scornful gaze on his former comrades in Beijing, rather than wasting it on provincial court officials with whom he has no real quarrel. Bo, ever a patient and calculating politician, is probably already counting the days.
Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry.