IN THE most politically-charged corruption case in China, the former Peking Communist party boss was sentenced yesterday to 16 years in jail.
Chen Xitong, by far the most senior official to be punished in China's five-year campaign against graft, was found guilty of embezzlement, accepting gifts, and dereliction of duty.
Mr Chen, "in pursuit of a corrupt and decadent life", had diverted public funds to build "two luxurious villas" where he indulged in "extravagant wining, dining and personal entertainment ... and pleasure-seeking", the verdict said.
Previous reports have stated Mr Chen's illicit assets aspounds 24m in cash plus a string of villas and apartments, which he liberally provided to relatives, mistresses and friends. Yesterday's judgment mentioned only a few offences, presumably because a full account might prove too explosive.
The judges found that between 1991 and 1994 he had misappropriated 22 gifts, valued at 555,000 yuan (pounds 42,000) which had been given by un-named "foreign parties". "Among these items were eight gold and silver products, six deluxe watches, four expensive pens, three cameras and one video camera," said the official court report. Total spending on the villas amounted to 38.68m yuan (pounds 3m). Lower-ranking officials have been executed for far less.
The scandal erupted more than three years ago, when one of the city's deputy mayors, Wang Baosen, committed suicide as the corruption investigation closed in. The court judgment said Mr Chen "conspired" with Mr Wang to embezzle funds for the villas.
The political sensitivity of the case left ordinary Pekingers sceptical over whether 68-year-old Mr Chen would ever receive serious punishment. As well as having powerful friends, his case posed questions about other senior officials who had their fingers in the pie. Zhang Siqing, China's procurator-general, said that between 1993-97 some 181,873 officials were prosecuted for embezzlement, bribery and dereliction of duty. But this included only 265 at or above prefecture level, though it is the senior cadres who have greatest opportunity for graft.
Mr Chen is one of the most unpopular politicians in the capital, because of his zealous support in June 1989 for the bloody shooting of the pro-democracy demonstrators.
Mr Liu, 44, a driver, said: "The sentence should have come earlier. People do not like him, and now the result comes we feel relieved."
An old man added: "In Mao's time, if you committed corruption, you died. But now it is different and there is so much corruption."
Mr Chen's trial took place, in camera, on 20 July.
In his 12 years as mayor and then party secretary for Peking, he presided over a top-level municipal administration which is believed to have siphoned off nearly 18bn yuan (pounds 1.4bn). The scale of the corruption, which included huge kick-backs from Peking's building programme in the early 1990s, was such that it must have been obvious to central government. But it was not until April 1995 that Mr Chen was suddenly sacked as Peking party chief, in a move which was as much about politics as crime.
As a Politburo member, Mr Chen was well-positioned among the hardline faction in the top leadership, and was seen as an opponent of President Jiang Zemin. His removal in 1995 was useful to Mr Jiang, as a popular measure to show the country that the government was serious about tackling corruption, and as a way of asserting the president's political clout.
Yesterday's long sentence, which came just three weeks after Mr Chen was formally charged, suggests that President Jiang is feeling confident. The President also knows the sentence will please ordinary Chinese.
The conviction by the Peking Municipal Higher People's Court was announced yesterday morning on national television, soon after the verdict. There is no way of knowing whether Mr Chen will actually serve his time in prison, or live fairly comfortably under house arrest.
The sentence comprised 13 years' imprisonment for corruption and four years for dereliction of duty. The total term to be served was 16 years, however. The judge also ordered that the former party boss's bribes should be confiscated. Mr Chen has 10 days to appeal, but it is a foregone conclusion that such a move would not succeed.
The sentence was harsher than had been expected for Mr Chen, but lenient compared with the thousands who have been executed for far less serious economic crimes in the anti-graft crackdown. Seniorpoliticians and ordinary Chinese are not equal before the law, even when a political point is being made. Another Mr Chen - Chen Zhong - for example, was executed two years ago in Sichuan province for attempting to steal VAT receipts from a tax office.
Mr Chen's sentence looks light compared with some of the 30 other Peking officials already sentenced in connection with his web of corruption; Tie Ying, the former director of the Peking Government Legal Affairs Office, which approved business licences and permits, was jailed for 15 years for accepting 430,000 yuan (pounds 32,000) in bribes.
Mr Chen's nearest and dearest profited hugely from their connections. His son, Chen Xiaotong, was jailed for 12 years last year for accepting bribes and "diverting public funds", while his mistress, He Ping, escaped abroad after receiving a reported pounds 3m from Mr Chen.
Mr Chen was purged from the party last autumn, leaving China's more sensational newspapers freer to speculate about the case. The government permitted such revelations, but drew the line at a novel, The Wrath of Heaven, which was a thinly disguised run-down of the Chen Xitong story.
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