China is preparing to issue a verdict for the former police chief who sparked a once-in-a-generation scandal that highlighted deep fissures in the Communist Party and brought down one-time boss and maverick politician Bo Xilai. But while Wang Lijun’s fate will be publicly announced Monday, observers say it was decided long ago.
Analysts say the former vice mayor of southwestern megalopolis Chongqing struck a sentencing deal with the Party long ago. It's a relatively common occurrence when it comes to dealing with high-profile politicians in the judicial system, they say — a fact Wang's trial serves to highlight.
“The least well-regarded aspects of criminal law in China are its dealings with major political cases," said Richard Cullen, an expert on Chinese law at The University of Hong Kong.
"It’s clear that decisions are being made beforehand, and very significant decisions were made in advance [of the trial]. You can see this through the lack of access for the defendant to independent lawyers and for independent argument in court or cross examinations. ... I suspect that the reason Mr. Wang or Bo Xilai’s wife seem so docile during their trials is because they understand this and the give and take within that system," he continued.
Wang — a known corruption fighter in China — entered the public eye in February, when he briefly hid out in the Chengdu US Consulate after revealing details of the Bo Xilai murder case to the United States.
Bo's former righthand man levied the initial accusation against Gu Kailai, Bo's wife, that she poisoned British businessman Neil Heywood in Chongqing. Wang's statements ignited a fiery scandal among China's political elite and helped lead to a murder conviction for Gu in November.
Given his “cooperation” and public apology to the party, Wang is expected to receive a comparatively light sentence for defection, abuse of power, bending the law for selfish ends, and bribery.
"I acknowledge and confess the guilt accused by the prosecuting body and show my repentance," Wang said in a statement to the court, according to state-run Xinhua. "My acts were crimes, and I hope the serious impacts [caused by my acts] both at home and abroad would be eliminated through the trial. I hope the trial will issue a warning to society and let people draw lessons from me. 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.’”
Sources say the US denied Wang political asylum because it feared he had been involved in numerous instances of torture while aiding Bo’s organized crime crackdown in Chongqing. Bo and Wang’s critics say that crackdown was little more than a consolidation of power for a duo that ran the city as their own personal fiefdom.
Analysts have pointed to indirect references to Bo in state media coverage of Wang’s trial as evidence the former political star will be next in line for the dock.
But while Bo’s once-promising political career has been cut short, don’t expect him to receive much more than a slap on the wrist for his role in the cover up of the Briton’s murder, or a string of other crimes that insiders say range from corruption to torture.
"It appears that a deal has already been struck so Bo will be spared heavy punishment. That's why people associated with Bo ... are also getting considerably light treatment," said Willy Lam of Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Gu was handed a death sentence for the murder, but that sentence is expected to be commuted to life, which will then be further reduced in the years to come. Her accomplice received a nine-year prison term.
Beijing has been accused of sugarcoating corruption in this case in a bid to stave off growing domestic criticism of its fabulously wealthy leaders.
“Judicial reform in China throughout the Open Door period has been profound, particularly with the number of lawyers and judges being trained," said Cullen. "There have been substantial improvements in civil and tax law, but when you get closer to the fundamental operations of the Party then the law is at its weakest. There is no question about that."
"Every time a new bunch of leaders come along, we look to the heavens and ask 'Will it be this time? Can they really move political reform along?’ I really don’t know," he added.
Later this year, President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will step down from their posts.
Wang and Bo's scandal has likely shaped the country’s political environment more than any incident since the Tiananmen Protests in 1989. Then, hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed and the Party split over how to handle the peaceful student- and worker-led reform movement.
"I think leaders have taken the view that if Wang Lijun had not gone to the [US] consulate, China's problems would have been even worse," said He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University in an interview with the Wall St Journal. "His actions did not just expose the Bo affair, they changed the whole direction of China."