SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST (Hong Kong), REUTERS, WALL STREET JOURNAL (USA), ASAHI SHIMBUN (Japan)
BEIJING - Wang Lijun, former mayor and head of police in the Sichuan city of Chongqing, was sentenced Monday to 15 years in prison for corruption and attempting to defect for his role in one of the most damaging political scandals to hit China in a generation.
The guilty verdict was not a surprise, but the sentence was much lighter than the life sentence or death penalty that some had expected. The sentence was reduced because Wang -- also a member of the Chinese People’s Congress -- had “rendered a service” and “exposed clues of major law-breaking and crimes by others,” according to Reuters report on the court's ruling.
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“Why such a light sentence?” --"Jasmine Revolution" on Twitter
Until his spectacular flight to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February 2012 made headlines around the world, Wang Lijun, an ethnic Mongol, was perhaps the most famous policeman in China, the right-hand man of Sichuan provincial party chief Bo Xilai; Bo himself may have been in line to become the new No. 2 man in China at the party meeting in Beijing this October. The Wall Street Journal reports that the meeting continues to be postponed.
But Wang’s flight was the opening salvo in a series of blows to Bo’s leadership. Bo had been admired and widely praised for his “hit hard” crackdown on gangs, crime, and corruption in Chongqing, with Wang’s aid. He was also feared for his disregard of suspects’ legal rights and was accused of cronyism by some critics who were safely far away in Beijing.
Bo was removed from his position in March of this year, after the international press reported Wang’s allegations that Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, a prominent international lawyer, had ordered the murder of a British man who had threatened to reveal her business dealings. The death of longtime China resident and British expatriate Neil Heywood, which occurred in November 2011, had previously been labeled alcohol poisoning by the Chinese police under Wang Lijun.
Wang Lijun’s dramatic flight, apparently in fear for his life, suddenly shone a light on the incident, and Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai came under heightened scrutiny. International press probes quickly turned up more than one hundred million dollars in business dealings associated with the Bo and Gu families.
Heywood is said to have helped their son, Bo Guagua, to go to expensive British preparatory school Harrow and then Oxford in England, and subsequently to Harvard. In spite of Bo Xilai’s modest salary in Sichuan, and Gu Kailai’s lack of a job since 2007, Guagua was known to his fellow students as a spendthrift “princeling” who drove fast cars and was not a good student, Asahi Shimbun reports.
Bo and his wife were hastily removed from power. Wang Lijun, meanwhile, left the American consulate under guard after intense negotiations, and was put on trial. He said that he had told the truth to the Americans: Heywood was murdered at the orders of Bo’s wife, the murder was covered up, and that he himself feared for his life because of what he knew.
Reportedly Wang said at the trial that when he tried to tell his boss, Bo, that Gu had murdered the Briton, Bo had covered his ears. Fearing for his life, Wang then fled to Chengdu, where his inconvenient arrival embarrassed everyone, including the Americans.
Behind the scenes, the affair is also a struggle between left and right wings of the Chinese leadership. Bo Xilai, who had cracked down hard on wealthy businessmen and was considered an admirer of harder-line communism, was feared by many proponents of a more Westernized approach. His difficulties have been a boon for them. Gu was given a suspended death sentence in August, effectively a sentence of life imprisonment.
However, Bo has still not been accused of any crime. Wang’s light sentence (he may be eligible for parole after serving half of it) has also encouraged Bo’s supporters to think the party will not be severe.