China throws the book at Bo Xilai

Bo Xilai was the focus of a huge scandal in China last year. (Reuters)

Bo Xilai was the focus of a huge scandal in China last year. (Reuters)

The former Chinese politician Bo Xilai, who once enjoyed great influence within the ruling party, has been indicted for bribery, corruption and abuse of power.

He is expected to go on trial soon in the eastern city of Jinan in Shandong province, drawing one of the country's biggest scandals to a close.

The affair erupted just ahead of the Communist Party's once-a-decade leadership transition last year, shedding an unwelcome light on internal conflicts and under­scoring widespread suspicions about the behaviour and wealth of the political elite.

Bo (64) was once seen as a possible candidate for China's most senior political body and many believe he aspired to the top job.

But the charismatic and divisive party secretary of Chongqing was spectacularly toppled in 2012 after allegations surfaced that his wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered a British businessman.

Gu was convicted of Neil Heywood's murder last August and  was given a suspended death sentence, which will almost certainly be commuted to life imprisonment in due course.

State news agency Xinhua reported on Thursday that prosecutors in Jinan had handed Bo's case to the city's intermediate people's court that morning – one year but for a day since charges were laid against his wife.

"The accused Bo Xilai, as a civil servant, took advantage of the privileges of his office to gain benefits for others and illegally received money and items in extremely large amounts," it added, quoting the indictment.

It said Bo also "embezzled an extremely large amount of public funds and abused his powers of office, causing heavy losses to the interests of the nation and the people in an extremely serious way".

It did not mention the allegation that he had helped to cover up his wife's role in the killing, made by state media in September, when officials first announced he would face criminal charges. Chinese media coverage at the time included a list of claims such as improper sexual behaviour.

Major corruption cases often take over a year to come to trial, though some suggest proceedings were delayed by Bo's intransigence as well as lobbying by factions in the party.

The announcement of charges also follows the full handover of power to a new generation of leaders under Xi Jinping, who has been seeking to restore the party's legitimacy with a protracted crackdown on corrupt officials. He has vowed to target both "flies and tigers" – lower-level ­cadres and senior leaders.

But Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong, said cases such as Bo's appeared to have more to do with political manoeuvring than with an anticorruption crackdown and were greeted cynically by many in China.
He said that, for Xi, tying up the case would be "defusing a political bomb".

"A satisfactory settlement among the factions is important for stability and the avoidance of disputes. If you look at these trials [of senior leaders], the defendants all admit their guilt quietly; they don't claim to offer important revelations about other networks and supporters; and they get lenient sentences," said Cheng.

That pattern strengthened the belief that political agreement on the outcome was reached before charges were laid, he noted.

"You try to avoid cases having an adverse impact on factional balances and solidarity. You never see leaders who are defiant and suddenly jump up in court saying 'Aha – so-and-so was also involved'."

He said leaders would also be keen to finish the case before the third plenum, the major party meeting this coming October, and to avoid too protracted a series of big corruption trials. The former railways minister Liu Zhijun was handed a suspended death sentence earlier this month, and a senior economic official is under investigation.

Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said: "I guess it shows a secure leadership who have got the big business of the transition out of the way and now want clear water between them and the past, so tidying up this issue now the real poison has been sucked out of it is good. They don't want this sort of thing lingering forever, as it gives the impression that somehow there was unfinished business.

"Bo's threat was managed, last year and early this year, and so now the precedent supplied by treatment of senior disgraced figures like Chen Liangyu and Chen Xitong can be used – a year or so of 'internal procedures', then some nominal civil case treatment and send them into the permanent wasteland of suspended death sentence."

Bo, the "princeling" son of a famous Communist veteran, had long been known for his ambition but made waves in particular as party boss of the southwestern city of Chongqing.

He launched high-profile "sing red, strike black" campaigns promoting Communist culture and conducted a ruthless antigang crackdown that critics said trampled over the law.

He was toppled after he sidelined his former police chief Wang Lijun, who subsequently fled to the United States consulate in Chengdu, where he told diplomats that Gu had murdered Heywood. – © Guardian News & Media 2013

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