Bo was a member of the Communist Party Politburo and the charismatic party chief of Chongqing city. A rising star in Chinese politics, he revived the memory of Mao Zedong, cracked down on organized crime and made no secrets of his national ambitions.
But the inner workings of his fiefdom were laid bare last year after his police chief, Wang Lijun, sensationally sought asylum in a U.S. consulate, making a series of damaging accusations about his former boss.
The scandal became a huge embarrassment to the party, exposing deep divisions among its senior leadership as well as corruption and thuggery at the top levels.
At its heart was the tale of British businessman Neil Heywood’s death, which Chinese authorities had initially tried to blame on alcohol poisoning.
Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted last year of killing Heywood in 2011 and given a suspended death sentence, while Wang was given 15 years in prison for covering up the murder.
Bo was expelled from the party last September. On Sunday, he was convicted of having accepting bribes worth $3.6 million, of embezzling more than $800,000 in state funds and of obstructing the investigation into Heywood’s death.
Speaking about Bo’s obstruction of justice in the Heywood case, Wang Xuming, the judge in Jinan, said: “It had a particularly bad influence on society and seriously damaged the interests of the nation and the people.”
Cheng Li, a China political expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the sentence “matches the scale of the corruption and also his refusal to admit the charges or cooperate.”
“In Chinese law, if you do not cooperate, you will certainly be punished more severely,” he said.
Trials of this nature in China are normally carefully choreographed, with the outcome decided long in advance. But Bo had confounded expectations by pleading not guilty to the charges and mounting a spirited defense, admitting only to having made “serious misjudgments” that had shamed his country.
Although foreign journalists were barred from the proceedings, the court in Jinan took the unprecedented step of posting detailed excerpts from the five-day trial, as well as videos and photos, in a live microblog.
The government has paraded this as a symbol of its openness, yet local journalists say their reporting about the Bo affair has been subject to unusually heavy censorship this year, while the same is true for comments posted on social-media sites including Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, before and after the verdict.
On Sunday, the news portal www.163.com indicated more than 6,000 comments had been posted, but only 400 were visible, all of which praised the verdict. On www.sina.com, the counter indicated more than 2.3 million comments had been posted, but only 129,000 were left on the site. “I made comments several times, but they were deleted,” said a user named Ice Nini on Weibo. “It’s so dark!”
During the dramatic trial, Gu had testified against her husband in an 11-minute pre-recorded video that laid bare the lavish lifestyle of the Communist Party elite, a lifestyle allegedly funded by bribes.
Bo called his wife crazy and her evidence laughable,alleging that she had been forced to testify against him. In a final twist, he said the real cause of his downfall was a secret love affair that turned sour between his wife and police chief Wang, who had been his closest adviser.
During his time running Chongqing, Bo had advocated “red culture,” promoting Mao’s quotes and encouraging the singing of “red songs” celebrating the Communist Party’s achievements. He actively pursued foreign investment into the city but tried to narrow the gap between rich and poor with social policies including a program of public housing.
Those policies won him popular support, particularly among the poor, but he was brought down by the ruthless nature of his regime and his overt ambition for a greater role on the national stage, experts say.
Neither supporters or opponents of Bo seemed entirely happy with the trial and verdict, underlining what a delicate balancing act it has been for the Communist Party to try one of its most senior and charismatic leaders.
The relatively heavy sentence did little to satisfy Fang Hong, who was sent to a labor camp for a year in April 2011 for posting a joke online satirizing Bo and his police chief Wang. “Bo Xilai didn’t receive a real trial,” he said. “He was protected by the party. His real crime, which is the restoration of Maoism, went unpunished . . . This means that the ‘Chongqing model’ could be restored at any time or in any place in China.”
One supporter from Dalian, where Bo had served as mayor before moving to Chongqing, said the city had never been the same since he left in 2000, and added that he did not believe Bo was guilty. “He was sentenced not because he is corrupt but because he lost in the political struggle,” said the 32-year-old, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “It’s meaningless for ordinary people, because the number of corrupt officials doesn’t decrease at all.”
“I no longer trust the party,” he said. “His trial was just a performance, but no matter how nice the performance looks, our life is still hard.”
Bo’s downfall both exposed and widened rifts at the top of China’s faction-ridden Communist Party.
His prosecution and trial is thought to have involved months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between his former backers and his opponents within the party and has been one of the foremost challenges for President Xi Jinping since he took over as general secretary of the party in December.
Bo’s robust defence of his record made some experts wonder whether the 64-year-old was laying the groundwork for possible rehabilitation and a political comeback.
That theory appeared to be bolstered last week when a letter supposedly written by Bo began circulating on the Internet, in which he vowed to wait patiently in jail until he was vindicated.
It suggested Bo hoped to follow in the footsteps of his father, Bo Yibo, who was purged and imprisoned under Mao, only to be rehabilitated and reemerge as a powerful party elder in the 1980s and ’90s.
“Dad has been imprisoned many times in life, and I will set him as my example!” the letter read.
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post said two people with close ties to the family had confirmed the letter was genuine, but The Washington Post was unable to verify its authenticity.
Brookings’ Cheng Li said Bo appeared to be gambling on political “uncertainties” or upheavals in the future that might see his reputation restored.
“But even if there is political uncertainty, his chances of becoming a credible political player again are zero,” he said. “The trial revealed his arrogance, how he is out of touch, his family’s misdeeds. It transformed him from a charismatic leader to an ordinary person.”
Zhang Jie contributed to this report.