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Why disgraced Chinese official Bo Xilai may not quietly fade away

Bo Xilai’s trial transfixed China with its revelations of political skulduggery and murder. The once highly influential boss of Chongqing has two weeks to appeal his life sentence.

A Chinese court sentenced disgraced former leader Bo Xilai to life imprisonment on Sunday, declaring him guilty of taking bribes, embezzlement, and abuse of power.

But that may not be the end of the most sensational trial in recent Chinese history, which has gripped the public with revelations of enormous wealth, murder, and political skullduggery at the very top of the ruling Communist party, and sexual peccadilloes among the elite.

Mr. Bo has two weeks in which to appeal the verdict and the sentence. The combative way in which he defended himself during the five-day trial last month suggests he may fight until the end.

The court, however, dismissed almost all the arguments Bo made in his defense during the trial, such as the allegation that his wife was mad and that her testimony against him was unreliable.

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“Bo Xilai was a servant of the state, he abused his power, causing huge damage to the country and its people,” the court found in its judgment announced on Sunday, which also seized Bo’s assets and stripped him of his political rights for life.

Bo was the boss of Chongqing, a megalopolis in southwestern China, who was gunning for a place at the pinnacle of national power on the ruling Standing Committee of the Communist party. His neo-Maoist policies and naked ambition made him a controversial figure, but his career came to a dramatic end last year when his wife murdered a British businessman and friend of the family.

The life sentence was harsher than many observers had expected, perhaps because Bo refused to repent. But it was in line with prosecutors’ demands for heavy punishment. Though Bo could have faced the death penalty, the authorities did not want to make a martyr of Bo, who still enjoys considerable support both among the public and in some quarters of the Communist party.

“This was a proper sentence, neither too harsh nor too lenient considering his crimes,” says Tong Zhiwei, a professor of law at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai. Professor Tong’s report to China’s leaders in 2011 about Bo’s autocratic ways in Chongqing was the first official sign that the charismatic politician’s days might be numbered.

Bo is expected to be held in Qincheng prison in Beijing, a relatively comfortable high-security jail for high-profile offenders where, according to Chinese press reports, inmates do not have to wear prison uniform, live in spacious cells with en-suite toilets, and enjoy generous creature comforts.

Bo could be free within a dozen years or so, released on bail or on medical parole, legal experts say.

“When you are dealing with political icons at a certain level, the sentence has only symbolic significance,” says Yuan Yulai, an activist lawyer. “This was a political trial, not a trial by law. The point is that life imprisonment means the end of Bo’s political career.”

Bo, however, appears still to hold out hopes of a comeback in the manner of his father, Bo Yibo, a Communist elder who was himself jailed in Qincheng by his political enemies but was later rehabilitated to hero status.

“I will follow in his footsteps,” Bo wrote recently in a letter to his family that was reported by the South China Morning Post. “I will wait quietly in prison.”