With the lenient sentencing of former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, the latest domino has fallen in the suddenly fast-moving game of Chinese politics. Next, China and the world may finally get to know the fate of Mr. Wang's former boss, disgraced Communist Party star Bo Xilai, and with it another hint of which way this emerging superpower will turn in the decade to come.
Mr. Wang upended a painstakingly set table when he walked into a United States consulate in February, telling tales of corruption and murder in the southwestern city of Chongqing under Mr. Bo's rule. The ensuing scandal has shaken China's political elite ahead of a sensitive transition of power that could begin as early as next month.
Mr. Wang was convicted Sunday of abuse of power, bribe-taking, defection and "bending the law for selfish ends." But while those crimes could have been punished with the death penalty, the 52-year-old career policeman was instead given a relatively light sentence of 15 years in prison. His lawyer has already hinted that he may serve far less time if he's released on medical parole, though Mr. Wang appeared hale in television footage of the court proceedings.
The official Xinhua newswire said Mr. Wang's crimes were mitigated by the fact he "produced important clues that exposed serious offenses committed by others. Those clues played a key role in the investigation of other cases. This could be considered a major meritorious service, which merits a lighter penalty."
The central crime Mr. Wang brought to light was last year's murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, who was poisoned by Mr. Bo's wife Gu Kailai after a dispute over money. During Mr. Wang's one-day trial last week, a court in Chengdu – the city where Mr. Wang attempted to defect – heard that Mr. Wang had tried to tell Mr. Bo that his wife was behind the murder, but was "angrily rebuked and slapped in the face" for doing so. Days later and, according to Xinhua, "feeling that he was in danger," Mr. Wang sought U.S. protection.
Ms. Gu confessed to the murder at her own trial in August. She was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve.
Experts on Chinese politics are divided on what happens next, with some seeing Mr. Wang's lenient treatment as a reward for exposing Mr. Bo, who might be the next to face criminal charges related to the cover-up of the Heywood murder. "It's not clear yet, but compared with a couple of weeks ago, the chances that Bo Xilai will face criminal investigation seem greater," said Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based human rights researcher and an expert on the Chinese legal system.
Others see the fact that Mr. Bo's name has yet to be mentioned in any public record of the case – he has only been referred to indirectly as "the then-leading official of the Communist Party of China Chongqing Committee" – as proof Mr. Bo's political allies have managed to shield him from criminal prosecution.
Rather than being formally charged, Mr. Bo – who hasn't been seen in public for six months – may face only internal Communist Party discipline, likely to include losing his seat on the elite 350-member Central Committee (he's already been suspended from the 25-person Politburo) and expulsion from the party. "Even if Bo were to go before a court of law, he would just be charged with shielding his wife, and the sentence would still be very light," said Willy Lam, a veteran observer of Communist Party politics who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "There's an equally strong possibility he will only face internal party discipline."
The question of how Mr. Bo will be treated is seen as part of a wider struggle for influence still unfolding with just weeks remaining before the once-per-decade transfer of power was expected to begin. The transition will see seven of the current nine members of the supreme Standing Committee of the Politburo retire in favour of a new generation of leaders.
Mr. Bo – a "princeling" whose father was a hero of the 1949 Communist Revolution – was once seen as a near-certainty to join the Standing Committee, and his downfall has exposed deep rifts in a party that normally excels at presenting at least a façade of unity. Mr. Bo's fellow princelings, and their chief patron, former president Jiang Zemin, are battling to limit damage from the scandal and to check the gains made by a rival faction of Communist Youth League alumni, a grouping headed by President Hu Jintao.
The Youth League faction is broadly considered more reform-minded, while the princelings are seen as more conservative about further opening the economy or any changes to China's one-party political system.
"It would show that Jiang Zemin and the conservatives still have substantial clout, if they can spare Bo Xilai," Prof. Lam said.
Few things are clear about the coming transition. Vice-President Xi Jinping, a compromise candidate, is set to replace Mr. Hu as both president and secretary-general of the Communist Party in the months ahead. Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, who was Mr. Hu's choice for the top job, will succeed Premier Wen Jiabao.
Still unknown is who will join them on the next Standing Committee, and whether that ruling body will have will have seven, nine or 11 members. Another turf war is reportedly being fought over Mr. Hu's desire to remain as head of the Central Military Commission for another two years, thereby retaining a check on Mr. Xi (as Mr. Jiang did when Mr. Hu initially took office in 2002).
It's not even clear when these decisions will be made. No date has yet been set for the key 18th national congress of the Communist Party, at which the new leadership will be introduced. Mr. Wang's fate is now sealed, but dominoes he set in motion haven't stopped falling yet.