China set a timeline for the prosecution of disgraced Politburo member Bo Xilai, moving to resolve a scandal that overshadowed a once-in-a-decade transfer of power and tested the unity of new Communist Party leaders.
Bo was charged with corruption, abuse of power and using his government positions to take an “extremely huge” amount of bribes, the official Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday. The indictment was brought by the Jinan prosecutor’s office, Xinhua said, signaling the eastern Chinese city will host the trial. Under Chinese law, a court will probably deliver a judgment within a month.
Bo’s downfall, the most serious political scandal in two decades, came in the midst of a leadership transition that brought Xi Jinping to power in November. It has taken Communist Party leaders, who tried to portray Bo’s actions as an aberration, almost a year from the time they expelled him to announce his indictment.
“An agreement has been reached and they will need to be confident that this will hold before putting Bo on trial,” Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in England, said in an e-mail. “The risk management by Xi and company must include an assessment that the risk is low before indicting Bo and thus setting the train in motion for the trial.”
As the son of former Vice Premier Bo Yibo, one of the “eight immortals” of the Communist Party, Bo, like President Xi, belongs to the princeling class of second-generation officials whose families are tied together through decades of shared experiences, alliances and patronage. The indictment follows the conviction of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, last August for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood after a one-day trial that produced a suspended death sentence.
That the leaders have decided to go ahead with the prosecution signals they are confident enough to try Bo, who won millions of supporters with populist policies in southwestern China’s Chongqing municipality that aimed at fighting poverty and emphasized the “red” songs and slogans of the early years of Communist rule.
“Defendant Bo Xilai used his official state position to seek benefits, illegally accepted an extremely huge amount of property from others, embezzled a huge amount of public money, and abused his power, resulting in huge losses to the nation and the people,” Xinhua reported, citing the indictment. “The circumstances are extremely serious.”
A former commerce minister and governor of northeastern China’s Liaoning province, Bo, 64, rose to prominence for his moves in Chongqing to boost social spending and state-led financing. His crackdown on organized crime, called “da hei,” or “strike black,” was a cornerstone of his tenure. Bo won praise from China’s top leaders, including Xi, who flocked to Chongqing to study his policies.
Rare for Chinese politicians, Bo attracted admirers across the country. Supporters unfurled a banner in Chinese that read “Secretary Bo, corrupt and incompetent officials envy you, the people love you,” outside a courthouse in Guiyang on Jan. 28, where some media reports said his trial would be held.
Once seen as a possible candidate for the ruling Politburo Standing Committee, Bo was expelled from the Communist Party in September. The party said he took bribes throughout his career and abused his power in the homicide case against his wife, Xinhua reported at the time. He also had improper sexual relations with “a number” of women, Xinhua reported.
“Chinese politics is not for the faint hearted,” Kerry Brown, a former U.K. diplomat and a professor of China studies at the University of Sydney, said in an e-mail. “This, I guess they hope, will be the final nail in the coffin,” he said, referring to the indictment.
The party is seeking to shore up its legitimacy as its new leaders tackle corruption, including sex tapes featuring senior officials and revelations of cadres living opulent lifestyles. For Xi, also the son of a top Communist leader, fighting corruption is essential if the party is to maintain its 64-year hold on power.
“The preponderance of facts tell us that the more severe the corruption problem becomes, it will ultimately lead the party and the nation to perish!” Xi told members of the ruling Politburo on Nov. 17 in remarks published in the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily. “We must be vigilant!”
The People’s Daily published a page one commentary today on Bo’s case, emphasizing that the prosecution shows the new leaders are serious about cracking down on corruption even in the highest levels of government.
“People will be held accountable and severely punished if they break the law, no matter who they are, no matter whether their power is great or small, no matter whether their positions are high or low,” the unsigned commentary said.
Since Bo’s expulsion, the Communist Party has been hit by more scandals. On Jan. 24, Xinhua reported that police in Chongqing cracked a criminal ring accused of hiring women to seduce local officials and then secretly filming the encounters to blackmail them.
One official caught on tape having sex with a woman, former district-level party secretary Lei Zhengfu, was sentenced to 13 years in jail in June for taking bribes. Former railway minister Liu Zhijun was given a suspended death sentence earlier this month for accepting bribes and abuse of power.
Bo was ousted as party secretary of Chongqing in March 2012 and accused of violating party discipline after his former police chief fled to a U.S. consulate with evidence that Gu helped plot Heywood’s murder, after they clashed over financial issues, Xinhua reported last year. Gu has since been sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve, while the police chief, Wang Lijun, was given 15 years in prison in September for trying to cover up the killing.
Bo’s ouster, the party’s biggest crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, has focused attention on the accumulation of wealth by the politically connected. The extended families of Bo and Gu, for example, built a fortune of at least $136 million in company shares and property, according to regulatory and corporate filings.
The announcement means the trial should be over before the party’s Central Committee meets later this year at a so-called plenum that may announce new economic policies.
“It would be desirable for the Party to get the trial out of the way before the Plenum,” Tsang said. “Such a trial is, by the standards of the Chinese Communist Party, much too important to be left to the court.”
Bo is the third member of the elite Politburo to be prosecuted in the past two decades. Former Beijing party chief Chen Xitong, who died last month, was imprisoned for corruption following his 1995 Politburo expulsion and former Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2008 for taking bribes.
— With assistance by Michael Forsythe