Bo Xilai indictment: China's unsubtle warning

July 26, 2013: 2:25 PM ET

The Chinese government is sending a clear message that ambitious officials trying to get to the top by unconventional means will end up in jail like Bo Xilai.

By Minxin Pei

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FORTUNE – Finally, the curtain is about to fall on the infamous Bo Xilai affair. The former party boss of Chongqing and a rising political star in China was unceremoniously purged from political office in March 2012. His wife has been convicted of murdering a British businessman and sentenced to a suspended death penalty, and Bo was accused of accepting bribes and engaging in debauchery (a crime by the nominally puritanical standards of the Chinese Communist Party).

Those familiar with how the Chinese Communist Party deals with its wayward officials have not doubted that Bo will receive severe punishment. The only question is whether his former colleagues and political rivals will give him a death sentence or send him to jail for life. The suspense will soon be over.

The Chinese government has just announced that Bo has been formally indicted. Based on Chinese legal procedure, a trial will open as soon as 10 working days after the accused receives the indictment. So it is almost certain that the Bo trial will be held in August.

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The timing and the venue of the trial show that China's leadership has done all it can to minimize further reputational damage. August is when most people are focused more on their holidays than politics. Media attention on the trial should be less intense. Since the party is about to convene an important central committee meeting this fall to unveil its economic reform package, having the Bo case dispatched will avoid any political distraction. To eliminate any possibility that Bo and his supporters might disrupt the legal proceedings, the trial will be held in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, far from Bo's power base of Chongqing (where Bo's crimes allegedly occurred).

Like previous corruption trials of senior party leaders, the Bo trial will be a secret one. Only his immediate family members and lawyers will be allowed inside the courtroom. The press will be barred. The proceedings will be covered only by the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua.

In all likelihood, we will learn a bit more about the details of Bo's alleged crimes. The indictment, which has been leaked to the press but not officially published, accuses Bo of accepting $3.25 million in bribes, embezzling $815,000, and abusing his power. At the trial, the evidence presented by the prosecutors will give us a glimpse of corruption at the highest levels of Chinese government. Since this event has "show trial" written all over it, we should have no doubt about Bo's conviction. What's unclear is how he will be punished.

Had Bo been a lesser party official, corruption on this scale would guarantee the death penalty (the Chinese government determines punishment on the basis of the amount of the bribes). However, Bo was a member of the Politburo, a position that gives him plenty of political privileges but no bulletproof immunity (which only members of the Politburo Standing Committee enjoy -- none of them has ever been prosecuted since the end of the Cultural Revolution). Prior to Bo's ignominious fall, two other members of the Politburo convicted of corruption drew, respectively, a 15-year and an 18-year sentence (both were out on medical parole after serving roughly half of their terms).

Based on the party's implicit rule of not executing Politburo-level officials, Bo will not get a death sentence. However, the party also wants to send a message. His rivals would like to see him receive a suspended death penalty (which will ensure that he stays in jail for 15 years, an effective political death sentence). His supporters (who still have strong influence in the party) would prefer a long jail sentence that could be shortened quickly through medical parole.

With the announcement of Bo's indictment, it is a foregone conclusion that the party's top leaders have agreed on Bo's punishment (the presiding judge will have no authority to decide). Given the intensity of the ongoing anti-corruption drive launched by Xi Jinping, China's new leader, it is very likely that Bo will receive a suspended death sentence. Anything less will damage the credibility of Xi's efforts and raise questions about his authority.

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It would be a mistake to see Bo's punishment as a message to other corrupt officials, though. By putting Bo on a show trial, the Chinese Communist Party wants to accomplish two political objectives. Its more immediate and pragmatic goal is closure. By all accounts, the Bo scandal has devastated the party's prestige and legitimacy. Beijing wants to put this sordid affair behind. The longer-term objective is to send a powerful but subtle warning to the party's 86 million members: The party demands absolute and unconditional obedience, and overly ambitious officials trying to get to the top by unconventional means will end up like Bo.

For Bo, who scared his colleagues with neo-Maoist tactics, barely disguised political ambition, and ruthlessness, such a warning obviously came too late.

Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker '72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

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