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Bo Xilai's Life Sentence Reveals China's Leadership Problem

Sep 21, 2013
Originally published on September 22, 2013 11:20 am

A court in East China sentenced former top Chinese official Bo Xilai to life in prison for corruption after one of the highest-profile political trials of recent years.

Media coverage of the court hearings transfixed audiences with details of murder, a love triangle and lavish official life styles. The case may prove to be a political Pandora's box that could bring down even higher-ranking officials and widen divisions over the country's future direction.

Observers describe Bo as an exception, a maverick and a wild card whom President Xi Jinping apparently saw as a political threat.

Many observers believe Bo's outsized personality led to his combative performance last month in court.

Outside the courthouse, Bo's supporters heatedly defended him. Inside the courtroom, Bo rejected every allegation. He assailed the credibility of every witness against him, including his wife.

Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian, says that Bo believes his status as the son of a communist revolutionary entitles him to make rules, not follow them.

"In his mind, his family was one of the founders of this system," Zhang Lifan says. "So he has no use for rules."

Towards the end of the trial, Bo dropped a bombshell: He told the court that his wife and his chief of police were involved in an extramarital affair, stuck together "like glue and paint," as he put it, thus injecting an element of human pathos and tragedy into the whole saga.

Bo used this information to deny involvement in his wife's murder of British businessman and family associate Neil Heywood, and his police chief's attempted defection to a U.S. consulate.

The police chief testified that he had uncovered Heywood's murder and he feared Bo wanted to silence him, and that's why he sought asylum.

Commentator Han Pingzao said he was stunned to hear Bo admit the humiliating details of the affair in court.

Han paraphrases Bo's argument this way: "[Police Chief] Wang Lijun didn't try to defect because I slapped his face, or because I knew about the murder and tried to silence him. It's only because his illicit relationship with my wife fell apart that he tried to defect. So this proves that I didn't know about the murder."

Zhang Lifan says Bo is denying everything with an eye to his political future.

"I think Bo has made a wager, and that is that the political situation will change, and that he will have a chance to stage a comeback," he says.

Observers say Bo's case is politically sensitive because it suggests that China lacks a clear way to arrange political successions.

Zhang Ming, a political scientist at People's University in Beijing, notes that China doesn't want to elect its leaders, and it no longer has hereditary dynasties.

"So the succession issue has been resolved by several big bosses who appoint successors," Zhang Ming says. "That works if the bosses have the authority. If they don't, then there will be dissent within the party. So politically, Bo was saying, 'I don't agree with your arrangements, and I'm going to use my own methods to fight for the top post.'"

The main question now is whether the purge that brought Bo down will be extended to his even more powerful patron. That man is believed to be ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang.

But attacking Zhou could be politically divisive. And the government may face more difficulty in laying the Bo Xilai affair to rest if Bo decides to appeal the verdict.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. A court in East China has sentenced former top Chinese official Bo Xilai to life in prison for corruption. It's been one of China's highest-profile political trials in recent years. Media coverage of the court hearings transfixed the public with intimate details of murder, a love triangle and lavish lifestyles. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, the case could take down even higher-ranking officials and widen divisions on the country's future direction.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Almost nobody writes songs in praise of Chinese politicians anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

KUHN: So, this popular tune is an exception. It begs the government to give us back our Bo Xilai. Observers describe Bo as an exception, a maverick and a wild card who President Xi Jinping apparently saw as a political threat. Many observers believe Bo's outsized personality led to his combative performance last month in court. Outside the courthouse, Bo's supporters heatedly defended him.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Inside the courtroom, Bo rejected every allegation. He assailed the credibility of every witness against him, including his wife. Zhang Lifan is a Beijing-based historian. He says that Bo believes his status as the son of a communist revolutionary entitles him to make rules, not follow them.

ZHANG LIFAN: (Through Translator) In his mind, his family was one of the founders of this system. So, he has no use for rules.

KUHN: Towards the end of the trial, Bo dropped a bombshell. He told the court that his wife and his chief of police were involved in an extramarital affair, stuck together like glue and paint, as he put it, thus injecting an element of human pathos and tragedy into the whole saga. Bo used this information to deny involvement in his wife's murder of British businessman and family associate Neil Heywood, and his police chief's attempted defection to a U.S. consulate. The police chief testified that he had uncovered Heywood's murder and he feared Bo wanted to silence him, and that's why he sought asylum. Commentator Han Pingzao said he was stunned to hear Bo admit the humiliating details of the affair in court. Here, Han paraphrases Bo's argument.

HAN PINGZAO: (Through Translator) Wang Lijun didn't try to defect because I slapped his face, or because I knew about the murder and tried to silence him. It's only because his illicit relationship with my wife fell apart that he tried to defect. So, this proves that I didn't know about the murder.

KUHN: Zhang Lifan says Bo is denying everything with an eye to his political future.

ZHANG LIFAN: (Through Translator) I think Bo has made a wager, and that is that the political situation will change, and that he will have a chance to stage a comeback.

KUHN: Observers say Bo's case is politically sensitive because it suggests that China lacks a clear way to arrange political successions. Zhang Ming is a political scientist at People's University in Beijing. He notes that China doesn't want to elect its leaders, and it no longer has hereditary dynasties.

ZHANG MING: (Through Translator) So, the succession issue has been resolved by several big bosses who appoint successors. That works if the bosses have the authority. If they don't, then there will be dissent within the party. So, politically, Bo was saying I don't agree with your arrangements, and I'm going to use my own methods to fight for the top post.

KUHN: The main question now is whether the purge that brought Bo down will be extended to his even more powerful patron. That man is believed to be ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang. But attacking him could be politically divisive. It would violate an unwritten rule that members of the ruling Politburo Bureau Standing Committee will not be investigated for corruption. And the government may face more difficulty in laying the Bo Xilai affair to rest if Bo decides to appeal the verdict. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.