TAIPEI, Taiwan — One down. One more to go? That was the question being asked by China watchers following the relatively lenient 15-year prison sentence doled out to a former protégé of disgraced political heavyweight Bo Xilai on Monday.
Wang Lijun, 52, a once high-flying police chief — who set off China’s most gripping political scandal in decades by walking into the US consulate in Chengdu with tales of murder, extortion and corruption — was found guilty of defection, abuse of power, taking bribes and bending the law for personal gain.
State-run Xinhua reported that the former crime-fighter, who has also been accused of torture, was given "a combined punishment for all offenses."
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In February, Wang, originally from Inner Mongolia, spent nearly two days at the US consulate in southwestern Sichuan province, telling diplomats that Bo’s wife Gu Kailai had poisoned British businessman Neil Heywood in November.
While most analysts agree that Wang was treated lightly by the Communist Party-run judiciary, which could have sentenced him to death on the bribery and defection counts, they are split over what the verdict signals for Bo Xilai, his one-time publicity-hungry boss of southwestern megalopolis Chongqing.
"This [sentence] definitely feels more on the light side than the heavy,” said Richard Cullen, a China legal system expert at the University of Hong Kong.
Bo has not been seen since early April when he was stripped of his spot in the Politburo, just days after Gu was arrested for the murder. Gu has since been handed a commuted death sentence. An accomplice received a nine-year prison term.
Sources say Bo is being interrogated in northeastern China. But nobody with direct knowledge of his fate is talking, at least publicly.
A court statement released after Wang’s two-day trial said he "did not raise an objection" to the charges. Though, why would he, when the outcome was thought to be secured long ago?
Analysts say Wang, former Chongqing vice mayor, struck a sentencing deal with the Party long ago. It's a relatively common occurrence when it comes to dealing with high-profile politicians in the judicial system, they say — a fact Wang's trial serves to highlight.
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An official court statement on his trial had already laid the groundwork for a comparatively light sentence when prosecutors cited his cooperation with authorities in implicating “others” and his confession and public apology.
"I acknowledge and confess the guilt accused by the prosecuting body and show my repentance," Wang said in a statement to the court, according to Xinhua. "My acts were crimes, and I hope the serious impacts [caused by my acts] both at home and abroad would be eliminated through the trial. I hope the trial will issue a warning to society and let people draw lessons from me. For the Party organizations, people and relatives that have cared for me, I want to say here, sincerely, 'I'm very, very sorry, I've let you down.’”
It was in that report that Bo was linked to the case for the first time, ratcheting up the chatter about whether he will face his own trial. While it failed to mention the scion of Communist Revolution royalty by name, it made reference to his position as mayor of the sprawling city and described him publicly slapping Wang for discussing his wife’s role in the murder.
The entire episode has strained relationships at the tip of the Communist hierarchy in the run up to an expected party congress in October, which will install new leadership in the burgeoning superpower. President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will step down from their posts following the congress, with most expecting "princelings," of which Bo is a card-carrying member, to take a larger piece of the leadership cake.
Descendants of China’s revolutionary political old guard, or princelings, are known as much for the power they wield as the vast fortunes they’ve accumulated through corruption.
But for now, before the congress, Bo's fate remains uncertain. The Party has yet to decide whether to merely jettison him or pave the way for criminal prosecution.
"Of course this is hugely embarrassing for the Party, and not what you want just before a leadership change. But it could end as a positive by warning other princelings, who many of the old leadership view as too ambitious and hard to control,” said a professor at Beijing’s Peking University, who asked not to be named.
"You have a guy like Bo, politicking in a system where politicking isn’t allowed. You have to remember this isn’t the first time he’s done this. Add that to the way he ran his city like a warlord, and it’s not a bad thing he has been cleared out."