Chinese anti-bribery push sentences former top general to life in prison

Chinese Gen. Guo Boxiong was stripped of his rank and forced to surrender assets to the government after receiving a life sentence for taking bribes.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters/File
Gen. Guo Boxiong stands at attention during the playing of the national anthem before a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington in 2006. On Monday, Mr. Guo was stripped of his rank and sentenced to life in prison for accepting bribes.

On Monday, a Chinese military court sentenced Gen. Guo Boxiong, a former vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, to life in prison for accepting bribes. Aside from his high-ranking military status, Mr. Guo was also a former member of the 25-person party Politburo, essentially the executive committee of China’s Communist Party, making him one of the most powerful figures to fall in an anti-bribery campaign led by President Xi Jinping. 

Guo's bribes were "extremely huge" and "extremely serious," state-run Xinhua News reported Monday. The former general, who retired from the Central Military Commission in 2012, will be deprived of his political rights, stripped of his rank, and has had his personal assets seized, according to the report. 

Since late 2012, when Mr. Xi took over as leader of China's Communist Party, he has initiated a battle against corruption, trying to reform a "bloated, bureaucratic, and corrupt" party that "has largely lost the trust of ordinary Chinese citizens," as The Christian Science Monitor reported in July 2013.

Practices of buying and selling ranks among top-stationed military officials have come under scrutiny during the sweep. A recent commentary posted on the Chinese Defense Ministry’s website calls this sort of corruption the “greatest threat our party faces, and is the top killer of the military's fighting ability,” adding that the fight against bribery is a “life or death” struggle for the military, Reuters reported.

Guo's conviction follows a string of similar cases for other senior officials, including Xu Caihou, also a retired general and former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. Gen. Xu was arrested in 2014 – at the time, the most prominent case in Xi's clean up. Xu, who had once been Guo's immediate subordinate on the Commission, died in March 2015, before he could stand trial for corruption. 

That month, Guo's son, Maj. Gen. Guo Zhenggang, was placed under formal investigation for corruption, signaling that the father's investigation was also likely, Reuters reported. 

Following a secretive trial last June, China sentenced Zhou Yongkang, its former domestic security chief and another member of the powerful Politburo, to life in prison on charges of bribery, leaking state secrets, and abuse of power. At the time, Mr. Zhou's trial marked the highest-profile political court case since 1981, when Mao Zedong's wife and three other officials known as the "Gang of Four" faced trial for treason. 

Earlier this June, former top presidential aide and political insider Ling Jihua received a life sentence for accepting bribes, illegally obtaining state secrets, and abuse of power.

Some observers have feared that Xi's extensive anti-corruption drive could also represent a consolidation of power, a "bid to stamp his personal authority on the Communist party leadership and to eliminate or cow actual or potential rivals," as the Monitor reported in 2014, following the announcement that Zhou was under investigation.

Xi's anti-corruption push "has demonstrated a fearsome understanding of the internal power dynamics of the Chinese Communist Party," Tom Mitchell writes for the Financial Times, adding "Ask any man or woman on the street what they think of their president, and the most common reply is that he is a strong leader who is fan fubai — 'opposed to corruption.'"

But Xi is also "using the party to assert authority in areas traditionally devolved to central or local governments," Mr. Mitchell says. "The change has been so dramatic, especially over the past year, that party and government officials talk about Mr Xi’s rapid consolidation of power in martial terms."

The wide-spread bribery investigations and convictions may have had some surprising consequences, particularly in decreased appetite for the high-end products favored by many in China's elite. In 2014, the World Wildlife Foundation announced a steep decrease in shark fin trade between Hong Kong and mainland China, for example, while luxury fashion retailers such as Prada and Gucci have also felt a pinch since the start of Xi's initiative, the Wall Street Journal reported. 

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