China turns focus on Bo Xilai after protégé sentenced to 15 years

Former police chief's 'lenient' punishment signals purged leader may soon face charges

Beijing

The one-time protégé and former police chief of Bo Xilai was sentenced to 15 years in prison yesterday for attempting to defect, accepting bribes and trying to cover up the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in a case that could provide important clues about the fate awaiting the purged Communist leader.

Wang Lijun's flight to the US Consulate in Chengdu earlier this year triggered the chain of events that ultimately led to Mr Bo's downfall and the conviction of his wife, Gu Kailai, for the November 2011 murder of Mr Heywood. She was given a suspended life sentence at a trial last month.

Yesterday, the Xinhua news agency reported that Wang, the former police chief in Chongqing where Mr Bo was the Communist Party boss, was sentenced for "bending the law for selfish ends, defection, abuse of power and bribe-taking".

Although defection, corruption and abuse of power are generally treated as capital crimes in China, the court in Chengdu heard that Wang had "exposed clues of major law-breaking and crimes by others" and "rendered a major contribution", which qualified him for a lighter sentence. The court heard how Mr Bo apparently beat Wang after he confronted him over the murder allegations, forcing him to flee to the US consulate, as he feared for his life.

The conclusion of the trial prompted speculation about the prospects for Mr Bo, and what impact all of this could have on the once-in-a-decade leadership transition expected to take place next month.

The primary concern in China at the moment is ensuring stability in the leadership transition from President Hu Jintao to Vice President Xi Jinping, especially with the economy looking set for a hard landing, and regional tensions mounting in the stand-off with Japan.

"This is a show trial and it means Bo Xilai will get a lenient sentence," said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a professor at Hong Kong's Chinese University, after the conclusion of the Wang case. "The sentence was surprisingly lenient. For any other people charged with such serious crimes and corruption, they would at least receive a suspended death sentence."

He believes there will be no criminal charge against Mr Bo, but instead there would be internal party disciplinary proceedings. "He will get a slap on the wrist," said Mr Lam.

Mr Bo, son of the revolutionary hero Bo Yibo, retains considerable influence within certain factions of the Party, and harsh sentencing could upset his allies. Among those patrons are former leader Jiang Zemin, who still retains a role in the Communist Party nearly a decade after he stepped down as leader, but who is rumoured to be set to make a pointed appearance at the forthcoming congress. However, other analysts see it differently.

He Bing, professor of law at the China University of Political Science and Law, believes Mr Bo could face criminal charges for taking bribes, and that he may be sentenced to life imprisonment or even the death penalty. And he fully expects this to happen before the 18th party congress, which is expected to be held next month.

Steve Yui-Sang Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, believes that the sentence is so lenient it almost suggests that Mr Wang was set up to bring about Mr Bo's downfall. "My money is on Bo being left out of the new Politburo and Central Committee but no verdict on him until after the Party Congress," he added.

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