BEIJING — Bo Xilai, at one time the most potent challenger to the current Chinese Communist Party leadership, was sentenced Sunday to life in prison for corruption.
The unexpectedly harsh sentence is likely to be interpreted as a sign of just how anxious the Chinese government is to get the 64-year-old Bo, a telegenic politician in the American mold, off the political stage.
For the first time since the former Chongqing Communist Party secretary was purged last year, Chinese media released a photograph of him. He wore a white shirt and black trousers instead of a prison uniform, but was flanked by two taller police officers apparently picked to minimize his 6-foot-1 height.
The court in Jinan, 250 miles south of Beijing, did not allow live television coverage but has been releasing redacted photographs and transcripts over its microblog account.
"If you don't agree with this verdict, you can apply for an appeal from tomorrow until the 10th day after the verdict," the court wrote on the account.
The sentence officially was life imprisonment for bribery, 15 years for embezzlement and seven years for abuse of power. The court rejected Bo's argument that his wife, Gu Kailai, a key witness against him, was mentally ill and therefore incompetent to testify. It also denied that a written confession made to party disciplinary inspectors had been extracted through psychological pressure.
Bo's trial took place in August over five days and was a salacious courtroom drama, punctuated by accusations of love affairs and murder.
Under Chinese law, the legal drama could drag on for many more years, assuming that Bo appeals as expected. He has vowed to clear his family's name and possibly rehabilitate himself politically.
"I will wait quietly in the prison," Bo wrote in a letter to family members that was published last week by overseas Chinese media. "My father was jailed many times. I will follow his footsteps."
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Under Chinese law, Bo could be eligible for parole in a decade.
Bo's stiff sentence appears to be retaliation for his challenge to the Chinese legal system and the Communist Party. Before the trial started, Chinese state television said that it would be wrapped up in two days, but Bo mounted a vigorous defense, recanting earlier confessions, shredding the evidence against him and embarrassing the prosecution.
Bo was charged with receiving bribes of about $4 million from businessmen in Dalian, where he had been mayor, embezzling public funds and covering up the killing by his wife of an English expatriate, Neil Heywood, with whom she had a business dispute. Gu, who issued written and taped testimony against him, is serving a suspended death sentence for poisoning Heywood.
In court, Bo argued that he had not known about businessmen's gifts to his family, the largest of which was a $3.3-million villa on the French Riviera, blaming the scheme on his wife and their son.
The spirited defense in a legal system in which 98% of defendants are found guilty won Bo legions of admirers in China.
Bo is the son of one of the Communist Party's luminaries, Bo Yibo, a close comrade of Mao Tse-tung. His status as a member of China's "red nobility" made him a dangerous rival to Xi Jinping, another scion of nobility who became president this year.
"Even intellectuals who didn't like Bo before became sympathetic to his case. That made it difficult for the court to give him a stiff sentence," said Jin Zhong, editor of Hong Kong-based Open Magazine and a veteran political analyst.
Jin believes that Bo's defense in court was aimed at ensuring his legacy in Chinese politics, but that it is unlikely he will be able to get out of prison and make a comeback like his father. "Unless the Communist Party and the current government collapses, it will be too late for Bo to return to power."
Bo is best-known for waging a Maoist revival in Chongqing, arresting wealthy businessmen and encouraging the population to sing and dance to revolutionary ballads. Many Chinese intellectuals considered his "beat black, sing red" campaign, as it was known, to be reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution and a setback for China's transition to a modern country.
However, in court, prosecutors eschewed any suggestions of the political, confining the charges to economic crimes.
The courtroom drama, which included admissions of love affairs, was the most publicized in China since Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and codefendants stood trial in 1980 for waging the decade-long political struggle known as the Cultural Revolution. That trial was televised throughout China.
Although the Chinese government initially made a deal with Hong Kong television to televise Bo's trial, instead it was publicized through redacted transcripts posted on the Jinan court's microblog account.
Mindful of public opinion, Chinese state media have been trumpeting the openness of the proceedings.
"Not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done," the court posted on its account Saturday, using an aphorism attributed to the late British jurist Lord Denning.
More recent precedents were Chen Xitong, the former Beijing mayor who was sentenced to 16 years in prison for corruption in 1998 but was released after eight years because of ill health. He died this year. Former Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu received an 18-year sentence in 2008.
Investigations in China are continuing to this day. The Communist Party's disciplinary committee is investigating the family of Zhou Yongkong, the powerful former Politburo standing committee member and security czar who supported Bo during his purge last year.