A rising political star once seen as a potential successor to Chinese President Xi Jinping fell hard Tuesday when a court sentenced him to life in prison for corruption, a fate that has befallen a number of political figures in China as Xi’s power grows.
Sun Zhengcai, a member of the ruling Politburo until he was unexpectedly ousted last year, pleaded guilty to corruption in April. He expressed regret and remorse for taking millions of dollars in bribes. At a trial in the port city of Tianjin, a local court sentenced Sun to life in prison. Furthermore, his political rights and assets will be stripped away, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Chinese state media reported that his expressions of regret made him eligible for a more lenient sentence, which suggests he may have been facing the death penalty. Since took power a little over five years ago, more than one million Chinese officials have been investigated and punished for corruption.
The fall of Sun is reminiscent of the purge of Bo Xilai in 2012. Bo, who is serving a life sentence for corruption and abuse of power, was the Chongqing party chief and a potential rival to Xi, who had not yet taken power. Sun was sent to Chongqing to fill the void left by Bo, but he failed to wipe out his predecessor’s “lingering pernicious influence,” Communist Party of China investigators determined.
After Sun was detained last July, the path was clear for Xi to promote loyal ally Chen Min’er in Chongqing.
Notably, while Sun was sentenced to life in prison for corruption, the Party appears to have found him guilty of a more serious offense — challenging Xi’s unquestionable authority. During the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, where the president was granted a second term, Liu Shiyu, chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, described Sun and other political criminals as “figures in important and high places who were both corrupted and contrived to usurp the leadership of the party and seize power.”
Sun’s case is interesting because it seems to signal that any challengers can be charged with a political crime.
At the congressional gathering last October, Xi Jinping Thought was formally enshrined in China’s constitution, making his political views and positions unassailable within the Party. In February, the Communist Party announced plans to amend China’s constitution to remove term limits for the president, leading many to conclude that Xi intends to rule for life.
The Chinese president said in April, though, that he is opposed to life-long rule, arguing that the move to amend the constitution was definitely misinterpreted by foreign observers. Regardless, Xi has emerged as one of China’s most powerful leaders in decades, commanding authority over important decision-making bodies for China’s politics, economics, and military.
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