BEIJING // The police chief whose visit to a United States consulate led to the scandal that brought down the former Communist Party high flyer, Bo Xilai, was yesterday sentenced to 15 years in jail.
After the trial and sentencing of Wang Lijun, the question of how and when Mr Bo will be dealt with by the authorities moves centre stage, although analysts say events so far do not give a clear picture as to what fate awaits the former Chongqing Communist Party secretary.
The jail term for Wang, 52, the former Chongqing police chief and Mr Bo's right-hand man, was handed down by a court in Chengdu for abuse of power, bending the law for selfish ends, defection and accepting bribes.
Top among his offences was a visit to the US consulate in Chengdu in February, where he told US officials that Mr Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had killed a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who died in a Chongqing hotel in November. Among other crimes, Wang also accepted apartments and cash from businessmen.
The length of the sentence conforms "to what a lot of people expected", said Barry Sautman, an associate professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
"Considering that at the time, the visit [to the consulate] was characterised by [the Chinese president] Hu Jintao as being treason, a sentence of only 15 years is quite little by Chinese standards," he said.
The court treated Wang more leniently because, according to the Xinhua news agency, although he initially covered up details of the Gu case, he later disclosed information to the Chinese authorities and supplied them with evidence. Last month, Gu was given a suspended death penalty for poisoning Heywood, while a family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, received nine years for assisting.
Wang and Mr Bo were once close allies, and as Chongqing police chief, Wang was the enforcer in his boss's uncompromising "smash the black" campaign against organised crime, an initiative that proved popular with the public but that has been linked to allegations of torture.
It was revealed in court last week that the pair fell out after Wang confronted Mr Bo over Gu's involvement in the British businessman's death, causing the then Chongqing party boss to hit his police chief.
A little later, in February, not long after being shifted sideways to a new job, Wang made his daring visit to the US consulate. He applied for asylum with the Americans but later turned himself in to Chinese authorities.
In March, Mr Bo was removed as Chongqing party secretary before being suspended from the powerful politburo, with his fall described as the biggest political scandal to hit China for decades.
Although mentioned by his title during Wang's two-day trial last week, Mr Bo's name was not used.
As a result, China's leadership has leeway on whether to level criminal charges against him once party disciplinary procedures over corruption are completed, said Bo Zhiyue, the author of China's Elite Politics and a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore.
"They could make a decision either way … It means the central leaders [have] flexibility," he said.
That Wang indicated he and Mr Bo were at odds over how to deal with Gu's involvement in the Briton's death could, however, be a bad sign for the former Chongqing party chief, said Mr Sautman. This is due to the inference that Mr Bo may have been interfering in a criminal case, an action that could lead to a decision to prosecute him.
"It's possible a lighter sentence for [Wang] means something more grave for Bo Xilai," he said, while cautioning "it's very difficult to say" whether this would happen.
Mr Bo was a contender to be elevated to the politburo standing committee, the most powerful decision-making body, at the 18th party congress to be held this year at which China will begin a leadership handover.
Unusually, the date of the congress has not been announced, but given that it is unlikely to happen later than November, prospects are slim there will be much progress with Mr Bo's case before it takes place, said Mr Sautman.
"The likelihood is they're not going to have enough time to deal with the fairly complex case of Bo Xilai," he said. He added that the completion of the case against Mr Wang could give the leadership some breathing space.
"Bo Xilai had a huge political career and was connected with a lot more people than Wang Lijun was connected with."
Mr Bo could embarrass senior officials if he decides not to be cooperative during any trial, Mr Sautman said, another reason why it might be safer to delay action on the case.