Third, Bo Xilai was no ordinary politician. Handsome, articulate, and charismatic, Bo resembled a Western politician in his public style and departed sharply from the dour, inconspicuous manner of most Communist officials. Bo's high-profile behavior in Chongqing made it seem he was almost campaigning for higher office, using his personal popularity to advance his career, which flies against Communist Party convention. Even after his downfall, Bo remained a popular figure nationwide—all the more reason for Xi Jinping to smack him down harder.
What are the repercussions of Bo Xilai's case?
In the short term, Bo Xilai's downfall is bad news for his patron, Zhou Yongkang, who during the Hu Jintao years served as China's powerful internal security czar. Since assuming power, Xi Jinping has purged four leaders close to Zhou for corruption. One of these leaders, Jiang Jiemin, was actually the president of CNPC, China's largest state-owned oil company. Should Zhou be purged—a real possibility—the importance of Bo Xilai's downfall would pale in comparison.
But in the long term, the repercussions will be modest, at best. The attention paid to Bo Xilai's case was more a reflection of its salaciousness than of its actual importance. The factional nature of China's politics has accounted for many reversals of fortune over the years, and sudden falls from grace are not unusual.
There was hope that Bo Xilai's trial would mark a turning point in China's quest to establish the rule of law, as Rebecca Liao argued in The Atlantic last month. But despite unprecedented transparency—the Jinan Municipal Court released full transcripts of the proceedings to reporters—the incomplete, capricious nature of the trial indicated that this was business as usual for the Communist Party.
So, is this the last we'll hear from Bo Xilai?
When a 64-year-old man receives a life sentence, odds are typically long that he'll ever resurface. But remember: Bo will be eligible for parole in 10 years, and could be released even earlier if there's a compelling medical reason. And even if he does serve a full decade in prison, Bo will only be 74 upon his release which, in China, makes him something of a spring chicken. Deng Xiaoping governed the country until his late eighties, and the 87-year-old ex-president Jiang Zemin retains considerable power and influence more than a decade after his “retirement.” And, if the Chinese political calendar holds to form, a new leader—perhaps one with a friendlier disposition toward Bo—will have replaced Xi Jinping by 2023.
Bo himself seems to think he'll have a second act. In a letter obtained by the South China Morning Post, he mentioned his father's imprisonment and predicted that he'll be vindicated:
“I will wait quietly in the prison,” the former Chongqing party chief wrote. “My father was jailed many times. I will follow his footsteps.”
In 1969, a diminutive 65-year-old man began work at the Xinjian County Tractor Factory in rural Jiangxi Province, one of China's poorest provinces. Though the man was assigned a regular job, he was no ordinary citizen: Just a few years earlier, he served as one of China's most important officials. But after encountering political opposition during the Cultural Revolution, he and his family were re-assigned, an exile that would last four years. The man's patience was rewarded, and by 1978, the then-recent employee of the Xinjian County Tractor Factory found himself with a decidedly more interesting portfolio: China's maximum leader.
The man, of course, was Deng Xiaoping, now venerated as the leader responsible for China's present prosperity. The circumstances of Bo Xilai's rise and fall are entirely different, but the history lesson remains pertinent: It's far too early to close the book on Bo.