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June 28, 2017

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Fighting corruption in China backfires by driving resistance

The Chinese Communist Party is using the prosecution of former Politburo member Bo Xilai to prove its determination to root out corruption.

"People will be held accountable and severely punished if they break the law, no matter who they are, how powerful they are or how high-ranking their positions are," the People's Daily said in a commentary.

Maybe. But what is the extent of the alleged corruption?

According to Caijing, a prominent Chinese current affairs magazine, the indictment alleges that the bribery and embezzlement amounted to $3.3 million.

That's small beer on the Chinese scale of corruption. Former railway minister Liu Zhijun was convicted of accepting bribes of over $10 million. Besides, the charges stem from the 1990s, when Bo was mayor of Dalian. What about the much more senior posts since then — governor of Liaoning, minister of commerce and party leader of Chongqing?

We don't know what happened behind the scenes since Bo was dismissed in March 2012.

There were reports that he went on hunger strikes to protest his treatment.

The charismatic Bo was clearly angling for higher office — possibly the presidency — before he was removed in March 2012. Thus, he was a potential rival of Xi Jinping before the latter was declared the new leader in November.

But now the Xi administration is eager to put the episode behind itself, preferably after a "public" trial during which the defendant won't create a fuss or make sensitive disclosures.

Thus, it is likely that there was a bargaining process during which some charges were negotiated to ensure their gravity is not such as to warrant the death penalty.

Two other former Politburo members have been tried since 1995: Chen Xitong, former mayor of Beijing, and Chen Liangyu, former Shanghai party chief. They received sentences of 16 and 18 years respectively. Bo's sentence is likely to be in that range.

The fact that leaders of three provincial-level municipalities have been prosecuted suggests that the party will seek to strengthen the loyalty of regional leaders.

In fact, a Xinhua commentary suggests just that — that local leaders must obey the central leadership. Thus, Bo's biggest sin was not corruption but deviation from the party line.

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