In China, Bo Xilai’s political legacy may survive his downfall


Fallen Chinese political star Bo Xilai was sentenced by a court to life in prison on Sept. 22, following a sensational scandal that culminated in the country's highest-profile trial in decades. (JINAN IPC/AFP/Getty Images)
September 22, 2013

Ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai’s prospects of an eventual comeback evaporated Sunday after he was sentenced to life in prison and permanently deprived of all political rights, but experts said aspects of his legacy may live on.

The charismatic former Politburo member had surprised many observers by mounting a stout defense against charges of corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power at last month’s five-day trial, possibly in the hope that he might one day be politically rehabilitated, as his father, a veteran Communist Party leader, had been.

But the gamble did not pay off, analysts said, and it provoked a stronger sentence than many had anticipated. He was found guilty on all three counts, and in addition to his imprisonment, all his personal assets are to be confiscated.

“He launched a big show of defiance for the sake of his own legacy,” said Willy Lam, a political expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “But obviously that infuriated [Chinese President] Xi Jinping. That’s why he was punished — for his defiance, not for his corruption.”

Bo entered the courtroom Sunday looking proud and confident, turning his head to smile at family members. But as the judge read the verdict and sentence, Bo’s expression seemed pained, according to a video shown on Chinese television. He was led away in handcuffs by two tall policemen, apparently selected to tower over the 6-foot-1 politician.

Bo has 10 days to lodge an appeal, but experts say his chances of success appear negligible. The Communist Party controls China’s legal system and would have decided on the verdict in a case such as this well before it reached court, they say.

Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, was purged and imprisoned during the topsy-turvy days of Mao Zedong’s rule in China, only to be rehabilitated and promoted to the position of vice premier later in life. But political fortunes no longer rise and fall on a single leader’s whim, and Bo Xilai is sure to face a more difficult path.

Bo had cast himself as a champion of Mao’s legacy while running the megacity of Chongqing, encouraging the singing of “red songs” lauding the Communist Party’s achievements, waging a campaign against organized crime and building affordable housing for the poor.

But his autocratic reign unraveled after the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in 2011 and the attempted defection to the United States of Bo’s police chief, Wang Lijun, the next year. His wife was convicted of Heywood’s murder, and Wang was jailed for trying to cover it up.

Nevertheless, Bo is thought to retain significant support among grass-roots party cadres, and his politics — known as the Chong­qing Model — have not been officially criticized.

Like Bo, Xi realizes that the memory of Communist China’s founding father remains powerful, and he has cast himself as the true successor to Mao’s “man of the people” image.

Xi also understands that the yawning gap between rich and poor is undermining the party’s standing, and he is waging his own campaign against official corruption and lavish displays of wealth. Critics say he also is becoming as autocratic as Bo.

“Looking at what the government is doing, the Chongqing Model is expanding to the China Model,” political analyst Li Weidong said. “The two have many similarities, although Bo Xilai’s name will never be mentioned again.”

Yet there are differences between the approaches employed by Bo and Xi, particularly over economic policy. The Chongqing boss was a strong supporter of state-owned enterprises, while the president appears to favor economic reforms that may lead to the erosion of those enterprises’ power.

Neither supporters nor opponents of Bo seemed happy after the sentence was announced, underlining the delicate balancing that the Communist Party has faced in trying one of its most senior leaders.

The life sentence did not 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.”

One supporter from Dalian, where Bo served as mayor before moving to Chongqing, said that the city has not been the same since Bo left in 2000 and that he did not believe that 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 spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “It’s meaningless for ordinary people, because the number of corrupt officials doesn’t decrease at all.”

“His trial was just a performance,” the supporter said, “but no matter how nice the performance looks, our life is still hard.”

The case has been subject to particularly heavy censorship in China. On Sunday, the news portal www.163.com indicated that nearly 14,000 comments had been posted on one report. But fewer than 500 were visible, nearly all of which praised the verdict.

“I made comments several times, but they were deleted,” said a user named Ice Nini on a Chinese weibo, akin to Twitter. “It’s so dark!”

Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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