China has nearly mopped up a murder scandal that has roiled the country for months, but the last step — dealing with a fallen political star who was once among the Communist Party's most popular figures — will be the most delicate of all.
Bo Xilai's former right-hand man and police chief, Wang Lijun, was sentenced Monday to 15 years in prison for making a thwarted defection bid, and for helping Bo's wife cover up the murder of a British businessman. Bo's wife and other figures in the scandal were sentenced previously, and Beijing is keen to settle the fate of Bo himself before a once-a-decade change in leadership expected next month.
Ever since Wang's thwarted defection bid at a U.S. consulate in February made the scandal public, the question of what to do about Bo, then a powerful party boss in Chongqing city, has bedeviled Chinese leaders. It strained relations among Communist Party power brokers just as they were cutting deals to transfer of power to younger leaders; deciding whether to prosecute him or merely purge him from the party became part of the bargaining.
Wang's trial and verdict bode ill for Bo. The official account of the trial implied that Bo ignored his wife's involvement in the murder after Wang told him about it. Though it referred to Bo by his position rather than his name, the account marked the first time in weeks of trials that Bo was mentioned in any way.
In sentencing Wang, the court emphasized his help in the murder investigation against Bo's wife, who was convicted last month, and in exposing the crimes of unspecified others.
"He apparently got credit for turning against" Bo and his wife, said Dali Yang, director of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing. "The revelation against Bo Xilai provides ground for the central leadership to dismiss Bo formally and, if they choose to do so, presumably to bring criminal charges."
Debating Bo's fate is one of the issues that has delayed announcement of a National Party Congress, a pivotal event in installing the new generation of leaders. With verdicts in for Wang and Bo's wife out of the way, leaders are next expected to announce dates for the congress and for a preparatory meeting to deal with Bo.
"The lack of a date for the congress appears to be evidence still of divisions over Bo and the final leadership lineup, as well as questions of political reform and other sensitive issues," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Bo's case is extremely sensitive because of his political pedigree and his popularity. The son of one of the communist state's founding fathers, Bo has deep connections across the party, government and military. He was one of 25 Politburo members and became popular nationwide through high-profile policies in Chongqing, including a crackdown on organized crime run with police chief Wang.
Bo seemed destined for the uppermost rung in the leadership before the scandal sidelined him in April. But his overt maneuvering for a top political job, the excesses of his and Wang's anti-mafia crusade and a publicity campaign to promote communist culture angered other leaders.
Given the leadership's ultimate control of the courts, the trials of Wang and Gu Kailai, Bo's wife, were likely part of pre-packaged arrangements that include a resolution of Bo's fate. Both Wang and Gu, who was given an effective life sentence, confessed to the crimes they were charged with, and both declined to appeal.
Bo was not called as a witness — or even mentioned by name — in the official accounts of either Gu's or Wang's trial, a sign of how the party is seeking to guide the process and minimize the impact, National University of Singapore China expert Bo Zhiyue.
"You could see this as an attempt at damage control," said Bo, who is not related to the disgraced Chinese leader.
The scandal has been the messiest, most public one Communist Party leaders have had to confront in decades, leading to Bo's removal from the leadership, his wife's confession to the murder, and sharpening divisions among the leaders.
Wang's trial and conviction mark the spectacular downfall of a publicity-grabbing police official who rose to nationwide fame by leading Chongqing's high-profile but law-bending crusade against organized crime.
According to the official account of his trial, Wang had grown close to Gu and covered up the murder of Briton Neil Heywood last November. After becoming estranged from Gu, and later Bo, Wang fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, fearing for his life.
The account said Wang secretly recorded Gu's confession to poisoning Heywood, a business associate whom she said had threatened her son's safety in a dispute over money.
The account portrays Wang as unbound by the law, ordering the surveillance of people without authorization and taking bribes from businessmen connected to Bo in exchange for releasing suspects from detention.
It said that after his falling out with Gu and Bo, Wang ordered subordinates to gather up the evidence and in February fled to the U.S. Consulate, where he sought political asylum, though he later surrendered to Chinese authorities. Gu was convicted of the murder last month and given a suspended death sentence.