An appropriate sentence for Bo Xilai

An appropriate sentence for Bo Xilai

FORMER Chongqing party boss and disgraced politician Bo Xilai was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Chinese court on Sunday.

The punishment - no more and certainly no less - was a carefully calibrated one after taking into consideration various important political factors.

Bo was found guilty last month of taking bribes and embezzling funds amounting to 27 million yuan (S$5.5 million) as well as abuse of power. Under China's criminal law, anyone convicted of these crimes is punishable with life imprisonment, a deferred death penalty or an immediate death sentence.

The court's decision to hand down the life sentence is an appropriate one, given China's unique political situation.

There are three reasons for this.

First, the sentence must be severe enough to deny Bo any chance of challenging President Xi Jinping as China's undisputed top leader in future.

Mr Xi has been in power for less than a year, having taken over the reins of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and military in November last year and becoming President in March this year.

Bo was allegedly masterminding a plot to unseat Mr Xi by next year so as to pave the way for his own ascension to the top job.

In China, a person sentenced to life in prison could, after two years, apply to have it commuted to a 20-year jail term. After serving 10 years, the prisoner is eligible for parole.

In other words, Bo could potentially be serving only a minimum 12 years in prison.

Keeping Bo behind bars is politically important for Mr Xi, who would then be able to consolidate his power and govern unencumbered for the next 10 years.

Second, the sentence must be severe enough to serve as a warning to CCP members against deviating from the official party line.

The CCP views the Chongqing model of development that Bo had touted while he was communist party chief of the south-western municipality as a serious deviation from the political line adopted by the party central.

In the CCP lexicon, what he did was tantamount to "splitting the party" - an act that is strictly prohibited. Past experience has shown that anyone accused of splitting the party would be severely penalised.

Making an example of Bo is politically important for the CCP to uphold the authority of the party central.

Third, the sentence must be severe enough to convince the people that Mr Xi was being very serious when he vowed to take down not just "flies" (corrupt low-ranking officials) but "tigers" - corrupt senior officials.

If Bo, a former Politburo member, had been given a lighter sentence, the punishment would have been considered unfair.

After all, two other past Politburo members - former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong and former Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu - had been jailed 16 years and 18 years respectively for corruption. The sums involved were much less than the 27 million yuan in funds that Bo was convicted of taking.

However, a harsher sentence than a life term would have gone against the tacit understanding among the ruling elites that a convicted Politburo member would be spared the death penalty. Worse, it would have created tremendous pressure for Mr Xi from top-ranking party members.

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