China's most famous ex-cop, Wang Lijun, the former police chief to fallen Chinese politician Bo Xilai, was sentenced today to 15 years in prison for charges that included attempted defection to the United States and covering up a murder.
Wang's flight into the U.S. consulate in southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu in February helped trigger the biggest political scandal China has seen in a generation.
While charges of defection and bribery often carry a death sentence, Wang was expected to receive a lenient sentence because he was seen to have inadvertently done his country a service by exposing his former patron Bo's wife Gu Kailai and her involvement in the murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood. Gu was found guilty last month and was handed a suspended death sentence. That revelation also resulted in the ouster of Bo, a charismatic politician who was thought to be in line for a higher national leadership position this fall.
"On the one hand, Wang committed grave crimes, which might have been more serious than what was disclosed," Hu Xingdou, professor of economics and China issues at the Beijing Institute of Technology, told ABC News. "But on the other hand, he saved China from being dealt a heavy blow to the ultra-left forces in China and rendered Bo's Chongqing model of governance bankrupt."
The court sentenced Wang for a series of crimes that total more than 15 years. The court did not explain the discrepancy. The breakdown of the prison terms includes nine years for accepting 3.05 million yuan (less than $500,000) in bribes, seven years for covering up the murder of Neil Heywood, two years for defection, and two years for running the illegal wiretaps while he was Chongqing police chief.
There may be hints that sentence may even be lighter. Wang's lawyer Wang Yuncai told the Daily Telegraph after the sentencing there may be a possibility that her client may seek some form of medical parole.
"I cannot say how many years he will serve," Wang's lawyer told the British newspaper. "If he gets the chance to go to a hospital for a serious illness then there is no minimum sentence that he will have to serve."
According to reports in the state media, Wang had originally helped Gu Kailai cover up the Heywood murder last November after she reportedly poisoned the Briton in his hotel room.
It wasn't until Wang, who was also vice-mayor of Chongqing at the time, fell out with Bo that he attempted to defect to the U.S.
In China's Xinhua News Agency's account of Wang trial, it was revealed that when Wang finally confronted the "principal person" in charge of Chongqing in late January with the evidence of Heywood's murder, Wang was "angrily rebuked and had his ears boxed." Though he is not mentioned by name the "principal person" is taken to be Bo Xilai.
Fearing Bo's retribution, Wang then made a run for the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu and attempted to handover the evidence implicating Gu Kailai in the Heywood murder to American diplomats. After over 30 hours in the consulate, both the American and Chinese accounts said that Wang left the American mission on his volition and surrendered to Beijing authorities for protection.
With Gu Kailai and Wang Lijun's trials now over, the focus is now trained on Bo, who has not been seen or heard of in public since his ouster in March. At the time he was removed from his Communist Party posts because of "serious disciplinary violations" without mention of the Heywood murder. However Xinhua's reference to Bo in their account of the Wang trial could be seen as a sign that the case might have grown beyond the "disciplinary violations" and he may be dragged into the Heywood case as well.
"It hard to say what today's verdict means for Bo," professor Xingdou told ABC News. "Chinese politics is about compromise. If his case is dealt with politically, he may not be arraigned. However, if he's dealt with judicially, it's hard to say."
Though removed from his posts, Bo was a popular leader when he was in Chongqing and still has his fair share of supporters in the Chinese government. Working out Bo's ultimate fate will be less straight forward than that of his wife and his police chief.
It may also take a while to determine Bo's fate. It will likely be delayed by the National Day holidays that take place in the first week of October, and the upcoming Chinese leadership transition, which could take place in mid-to-late October.
Click here for a brief history of the Bo Xilai saga.