China: Jail Time for Bo Xilai?

The once up-and-coming Chinese politician could be charged for helping his wife cover up the murder of a British businessman, among other things.

A new chapter may be about to unfold in the extraordinary political drama involving disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai. Previously considered a contender for one of China’s highest posts in the government’s upcoming leadership succession], Bo has been in detention and suspended from China’s ruling politburo since March, when his wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested on suspicion of ordering the murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman. Last month Gu was given a suspended death sentence for her role in the killing of Heywood, who allegedly was trying to blackmail her son. Yet official reports of Gu’s trial made no mention of Bo being involved in the crime—leading some analysts to speculate that some of his powerful supporters within the Communist Party were trying to save his political career.

Now China’s official news agency has given the first indication that Bo could face criminal charges for trying to cover up Heywood’s murder. It came in reports on Tuesday at the trial of Wang Lijun, Bo’s former police chief in the city of Chongqing (the verdict has yet to be announced). Wang was arrested in February after he tried to seek refuge in the American consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu. According to the Xinhua news agency, before he fled to the consulate, Wang told Bo about his suspicions regarding his wife’s role in Heywood’s death—but was “angrily rebuked and had his ears boxed.”

This would appear to confirm earlier reports that Wang sought refuge in the consulate because he feared for his safety after confronting Bo about his wife’s possible involvement in the murder. And since one of the main charges against Wang, aside from attempted defection, is that he too initially tried to cover up Gu’s role in the killing, something that prosecutors described as an “especially serious” crime, it now seems likely that Bo will also face similar charges.

Analysts say charges against Bo would be a boost for China’s President Hu Jintao, as he seeks to maneuver his favored candidates into position to replace him after he stands down as head of the Communist Party later this year. According to Willy Lam, a veteran China-watcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hu had faced opposition from conservative forces within the party—who had warmed to Bo’s calls for greater emphasis on traditional socialism—and from China’s retired but still influential former president Jiang Zemin, who was a friend of Bo’s father, a famous revolutionary general.

“Hu Jintao had been prevented from going after Bo Xilai by Jiang Zemin and other powerful patrons, who didn’t want him to be subjected to serious criminal charges and had lobbied quite successfully for lenient treatment,” said Lam. “So this development reflects a subtle change in the power struggle and the tug of war over Bo: it seems Hu Jintao’s position has been strengthened.”

Lam said the latest development could also open the floodgates to other charges against Bo. Wang, for instance, has been charged with accepting bribes, and there has been much speculation about the sources of the wealth that apparently allowed Bo’s family to buy property abroad and send his son to study at a private school in Britain (he later attended Oxford and Harvard as well).

The Xinhua report on Wang’s trial referred to him using “technical reconnaissance measures” on “multiple occasions” without permission—which may give credence to previous unconfirmed reports that Bo bugged phone calls made by senior leaders, possibly including President Hu himself, in his attempts to gain political advantages.

Yet Lam said the continuing influence of former president Jiang, and the party’s desire to avoid revealing too much about official corruption in public, means the chances of Bo facing any charges beyond that of covering up his wife’s murder are only 50–50. But even if he is only tried on the latter charge, he could still spend several years behind bars. “Bo is a much more senior official than Wang Lijun,” Lam said. “So for him to try to cover this up is more serious than Wang Lijun covering it up. His responsibility is bigger.”

Whatever the case, it seems clear that a man once tipped as a possible rival to Hu’s presumed successor, Vice President Xi Jinping, is likely to be sidelined from Chinese politics for the foreseeable future. It may be only a coincidence that Xi, who had not been seen for several weeks after apparently hurting his back while swimming, also finally reappeared in public on Wednesday, holding a meeting with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. But after months of rumors and uncertainty, the chances now appear high that China’s once in a decade leadership transition may actually proceed, more or less, as planned.