CHENGDU, China - The Chinese police chief whose thwarted defection exposed murder and infighting in high places was sentenced to 15 years in prison Monday, setting the stage for China's leadership to close out the divisive scandal and move ahead with a generational handover of power.
Amid heavy security, the Intermediate People's Court in the central city of Chengdu sentenced Wang Lijun after convicting him of defecting, abuse of power, taking bribes and other crimes to which he confessed at his trial last week. Wang told the court he will not appeal, said his lawyer.
The sentence is lighter than the 20-year prison term suggested in sentencing guidelines. The court noted Wang's cooperation in exposing the crimes of others, especially the central element in the scandal - the murder of a British businessman by the wife of Wang's former boss, once political high-flier Bo Xilai.
The scandal has been the messiest, most public one Communist Party leaders have had to confront in decades, triggering bruising internal jostling as the leadership prepares to transfer power to a younger generation. In the scandal's wake, Bo was removed from the leadership, his wife confessed to the murder and relations among the leaders were strained. As a result, arrangements for a party congress to install the new leadership this fall grew complicated.
After Wang's sentencing, the leadership is expected to announce long-overdue dates for the congress and dispose of the scandal's stickiest issue - whether merely to expel Bo from the party or hand him over for criminal prosecution. Pronouncing judgment on Bo will allow the new leaders to take charge without the scandal's overhang.
Wang's verdict likely portends harsher treatment for Bo. His 15-year term contrasts with the effective life sentence given to Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, for the murder of Briton Neil Heywood, a family associate, over what authorities have said was a business dispute. Only two of the 15 years were for attempting to defect to the U.S., a gambit in which Wang exposed Heywood's murder first to American diplomats and then to Chinese authorities, handing over evidence used to convict Gu last month.
"He apparently got credit for turning against" Bo and his wife, said Dali Yang, director of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing. "The revelation against Bo Xilai provides ground for the central leadership to dismiss Bo formally and, if they choose to do so, presumably to bring criminal charges."
Wang's conviction mark the spectacular downfall of a publicity-grabbing police official who rose to nationwide fame by leading a high-profile but law-bending crusade against organized crime in the inland city of Chongqing until he was cast out by Bo, the city's party chief. According to an official account of his trial, Wang had grown close to Gu, and after she confessed to murdering Heywood, Wang covered it up until his estrangement from her. Wang then went to Bo, whose angry response drove him to flee to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, fearing for his life.
"When mafia members break up with their bosses, they can attempt to seek police protection. But in Chongqing and for the former police boss, there was nowhere to turn," prominent editor Hu Shuli wrote in a commentary posted on the website of her magazine, Caixin. "And this perhaps encapsulates one of the greatest embarrassments of the country's current legal system."
The official account of Wang's trial, carried by Xinhua, portrays Wang as unbound by the law. It says he ordered surveillance of people without authorization and took bribes from businessmen connected to Bo in exchange for releasing suspects from police detention.
While he first told Gu he would hide evidence and cover up her crime last November, the account said he secretly recorded her confession to poisoning Heywood, a business associate whom she said had threatened her son's safety in a dispute over money.
After his falling out with Gu and Bo, Wang ordered subordinates to gather up the evidence and in February fled to the U.S. Consulate, where he applied for political asylum, though he later surrendered to Chinese authorities.
Xinhua has portrayed Wang as being contrite. "I acknowledge and confess the guilt accused by the prosecuting body and show my repentance," Wang was quoted as saying in court last week. "For the Party organizations, people and relatives that have cared for me, I want to say here, sincerely: I'm very, very sorry, I've let you down."
As for Bo, who was dismissed as party boss of Chongqing in March and stripped of his position among the Communist Party elite, last week was the first time the authorities implicated him in a crime. Though the account does not name him, it says Wang told the city's top party official about Gu's role in Heywood's murder, only to be slapped for it. The implicit reference suggests authorities are preparing to prosecute him on criminal charges, removing for good a politician whose populist style grated on his fellow leaders.
Ding Xueliang, a China expert at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology, said those in the party leadership who wanted Bo out might push to reward Wang for exposing the corrupt and lawless inner workings of Bo's administration.
"Despite the many terrible things that Wang Lijun did before, he, in my view, contributed enormously to the legitimacy of the Communist government," Ding said. "This kind of local emperor style of Bo Xilai, it is a cancer of the system, and Wang Lijun helped the top leadership to deal with the fundamental disease before it's too late."