A Chinese court sentenced the former police who exposed a murder by a Chinese politician's wife to 15 years in prison on Monday in a decision that sets the stage for China's leadership to wrap up a seamy political scandal and move ahead with a generational handover of power.
The Intermediate People's Court in the central city of Chengdu issued the sentence after convicting Wang Lijun of defecting, abuse of power and other crimes to which he confessed at his trial last week, the government's Xinhua News Agency reported.
The sentence is lighter than the 20-year prison term suggested in sentencing guidelines and reflects what prosecutors at his trial called his "meritorious service" for cooperating in uncovering 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 were 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 trial and 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 Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, and after she confessed to murdering Briton Neil Heywood, Wang covered it up until his estrangement from her, and later Bo, drove him to flee to the US 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. Gu was convicted of the murder last month and given a suspended death sentence.
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."