It took just an hour to make final: on Friday morning, in an eastern China courtroom surrounded by police and a protective wall, Bo Xilai’s appeal of corruption charges was rejected. The man once considered among China’s brightest political stars – once in line for the top political office in the country – would spend the rest of his life in prison.
State television showed images of Mr. Bo standing in court, hands handcuffed before him, bearing a wry smile.
"The court rules as follows: reject the appeal, uphold the original verdict. This verdict is the final ruling," the Shandong Provincial Higher People's Court wrote in a verdict posted on its website.
At a subsequent press conference, officials said Mr. Bo had been questioned and the superior court had reviewed facts and video from the original trial, which sentenced him to life in prison Sept. 22.
That sentencing was met with cries of “unfair” and “unjust” by Mr. Bo, who mounted a feisty personal defence during his trial. He was, however, denied a platform to further defend himself publicly at appeal, as China’s ruling Communist party seeks to put his case behind it – and the window it opened into the life of luxury led by many of its leaders.
Indeed, observers say it is clear Mr. Bo’s trial was less about his acceptance of bribes or meddling with the investigation into the death of British businessman Neil Heywood, whose murder earned his wife, Gu Kailai, a murder sentence – and more about a consolidation of power by China’s new president, Xi Jinping, as he asserts leadership over the country.
Officially, Mr. Bo, who had served as a key conduit to China for Canadian business and political interests, was sentenced on charges of embezzlement, bribery and abuse of power. But his trial, whose outcome was never in serious doubt, had a clear political subtext.
“The denial of Bo's appeal serves notice to both sides of the political spectrum in China,” Russell Leigh Moses, Dean of The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies. To those on the left, “their cause needs to be larger than just one man. And to those who want reform, it holds out the hope that changes in the system will continue to proceed in an orderly fashion, but driven from the top – with the law firmly in the hands of the Communist Party.”
The political sensitivity of Mr. Bo’s case was underscored this week by a censorship sweep that saw supportive comments from Chinese social networking sites and media ordered only to carry the official story as provided by state-run Xinhua news agency. On Friday, much of the comment on Weibo, a popular Twitter-like service, was supportive of Mr. Bo’s upheld sentence, which user yujianliangren said “shows us the meaning of ‘the rule of law.’ No who matter who it is or how high their rank is, if they violate the Party’s discipline and the country’s laws, they will be seriously punished.”
Even if Mr. Bo himself vanishes from view – a prospect that is not at all clear, given the strong likelihood his sentence will be reduced for medical or other reasons – there may be reason for the ruling elite to fear the shadow he leaves behind, Mr. Moses warned. “We should not ignore the possibility that the end of Bo's legal options could be the beginning of him being seen as a martyr to those who are dismayed at the inequalities they see as still dominant in China,” he said.
Indeed, some of China’s legal leaders noted that Mr. Bo should have been afforded the chance to make his case publicly at appeal. But his provocative defence at his first trial made official China “very embarrassed,” said human rights lawyer Li Fangping. He was subsequently muted so he could not “take advantage of the chance to win back influence and gain more support, which would run counter to [Communist Party] expectations. So they ended it as quickly as possible before the Third Plenary of 18th Congress,” scheduled for November.
Pu Zhiqiang, another prominent civil rights lawyer, added: “Anyone who says Bo's case was tried independently knows nothing about China."
Still, Mr. Bo’s own fate is unlikely to be one of pain and suffering. His sentence is likely to be served at Qincheng, a secretive prison for the political elite north of Beijing. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, it was likened to a “five-star hotel” by Bao Tong, a former policy secretary who served seven years there after standing against the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Beijing media have described conditions at Qincheng that include luxuries rarely afforded inmates, such as milk at breakfast, regular freedom to walk the grounds alone and the ability to wear clothing provided by family.
For Mr. Bo, Qincheng also brings a discomfiting historical resonance as the place where his father, Bo Yibo, was sent for a time during the Cultural Revolution.