Bo Xilai will spend his life in prison, for sure

Felled by scandal, the charismatic Chinese leader could not talk his way out of a life sentence.

Reuters/China Central Television (CCTV)
Bo Xilai (C) stands as the decision of his appeal is announced at the Shandong Higher People's Court in Jinan, capital of east China's Shandong Province in this still image taken from video October 25, 2013.

Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party star whose fall from grace led to one of the biggest political scandals in recent Chinese memory, lost his court appeal today when a high court upheld his September conviction for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power.  

Less than an hour after the appeals hearing began, the People's High Court in Shangdong issued a ruling that it "rejected the appeal and upheld the first instance judgment of life imprisonment," according to Xinhua, China's state-run news agency. 

The court's decision was largely seen by Mr. Bo and his allies as predetermined: "lawyers and people close to the Bo family [...] say the outcome was almost certainly decided by the party's top leadership after months of intense negotiations between his allies and opponents," reports the Wall Street Journal.

The chances of Bo successfully overturning the latest ruling are slim. As Hanna Beech at Time points out:

This final dishonoring of China’s most charismatic and controversial politician was never in any doubt. While appeals are technically part of the Chinese judicial system, they are almost never successful in high-profile cases. For more than a year, the Chinese Communist Party made it clear that Bo would fall — and Chinese courts are bound to follow the mandate of the ruling party.

Bo, the former mayor of Chongqing, a major city in southwestern China, was until 2012 a member of China's elite Politburo and a rising star seen as a likely choice for the Standing Committee, the Communist party's most powerful body. 

But Bo's downfall began last year when his Chongqing police chief unsuccessfully tried to defect to the US by seeking political asylum at a US Consulate in Chengdu. The subsequent investigation revealed that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered British businessman Neil Haywood. Both Bo's wife and the police chief were convicted, and Bo was charged this summer with covering up their crimes and accepting $3.3 million in bribes.

During the trial, the biggest political spectacle in China in nearly 40 years, Bo defended himself vigorously, arguing that the charges against him were false and that his wife's testimony against him was unreliable. The Chinese public followed the oft-lurid details of the trial - including an alleged affair between Bo's wife and the police chief - to an unprecedented degree through an official court feed on the Chinese micro-blogging website Sino Weibo.  

Despite the degree of transparency, the trial served as a public disowning of Bo by the ruling elite who have pledged to root out corruption among party leaders, rather than a trial by rule of law, some analysts say. 

"Bo Xilai's [scandals] caused the Communist Party such embarrassment that it had no choice but to act," writes the BBC's John Sudworth. "The inclination though was almost certainly already there. Bo's rare charisma and unusually open ambition in a grey-suited world won him enemies and made him a threat."

When Bo's initial sentence was handed down in September, activist lawyer Yuan Yulai told The Christian Science Monitor that the trial was viewed as symbolic: "This was a political trial, not a trial by law. The point is that life imprisonment means the end of Bo’s political career.”

Chinese officials may have chosen to give Bo a life in prison over the death penalty – which was another option – in order to avoid making him a martyr, The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford reported in September:

"Though Bo could have faced the death penalty, the authorities did not want to make a martyr of Bo, who still enjoys considerable support both among the public and in some quarters of the Communist party."

Bo may be eligible for medical parole in seven years, but he has effectively run out of options for now. 

Yet Bo may be looking at the example of his father, former party leader Bo Yibo, who returned from a politically motivated prison sentence during the Cultural Revolution to become a beloved political leader. 

"I will follow in his footsteps… I will wait quietly in prison," Bo wrote last month in a letter to his family published in The South China Morning Post. 

Bo is expected to be held in Qincheng prison in Beijing, "a relatively comfortable high-security jail for high-profile offenders where, according to Chinese press reports, inmates do not have to wear prison uniform, live in spacious cells with en-suite toilets, and enjoy generous creature comforts," the Monitor reports.

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