Bo Xilai May Have Gotten Off Easy

Bo Xilai May Have Gotten Off Easy

Crime and Punishment in Official China

On October 25, the Shandong High People’s Court rejected the appeal of , the former Party Secretary of Chongqing who on September 22 was convicted of bribe-taking, embezzlement, and abuse of power and sentenced to life in prison.

At the end of Bo’s trial, many observers noted that his sentence was much heavier than the sentences given to the only two other leaders of his level of seniority removed from office for corruption since Jiang Zemin took leadership of China in 1989. According to eyewitness accounts in the press, Bo himself called the court’s decision .

It is well known that China lacks an independent judiciary and that prosecutions for corruption often are the weapons China’s high officials use to do political battle. But Bo’s sentencing prompted me to ask whether punishment of high-ranking officials removed from office for corruption was arbitrary or whether we could discern any patterns and, if we could, what they might tell us. I also wondered how Bo’s sentence compared to that of other senior officials convicted of similar crimes.

My colleagues and I gathered reports from the official media, C.V.s on official Chinese government websites, and court records. We compiled a list of high-ranking officials who were dismissed or forcibly removed from office between 1989 and 2013. It was these cases we surveyed to try to answer our questions.

Among our conclusions, which we explain in greater detail below, are:

  • Given the patterns of sentencing of other officials convicted of taking similarly large sums of money through bribes and graft, Bo Xilai’s sentence was comparatively light.
  • Hu Jintao removed more officials from office for corruption—both in absolute numbers and on a yearly basis—than did his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. The officials who fell during Hu’s era were subject to stiffer penalties than their Jiang-era counterparts.

Our research does not cover Xi Jinping’s much-touted anti-corruption campaign. In the short ten months since Xi assumed the presidency, the campaign already has led to the removal from office and ongoing investigation of nine senior officials.

Ouyang Bin

* * *

120 out of the 141 officials on our list were removed from office in connection with embezzlement, bribery, or a combination of the two.

Classification of Crimes Committed by Officials

Administrative Rank

Chinese officialdom has elaborate hierarchies and its laws designate rankings for different types of civil servants. The top, or State Level, includes the President, the Premier, members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, and a handful of other top leaders. (Currently, there are seven people at this level.) The Deputy State Level includes Vice Premiers, Politburo Members, and Vice Chairmen of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, as well as other positions, in all currently totalling about sixty-three people. The Provincial and Ministerial Level, whose ranks number in the hundreds, includes the heads of Ministries, Provinces, and Departments of the CCP, as well as the CEOs and Party Secretaries of major state-owned enterprises. Beneath them, the Deputy Provincial and Ministerial Level includes thousands of deputy ministers and deputy provincial leaders, among others.

Of the 120 corrupt officials, none were at the State Level. Four were at the Deputy State Level, ten at the Provincial and Ministerial Level, and 106 at the Deputy Provincial and Ministerial Level.

Number of Officials at Each Administrative Rank


Of the officials charged with corruption, one (Gao Yan, former Party Secretary and CEO of the State Grid Corporation, at the Provincial and Ministerial Level) fled overseas in 2002 and has not been apprehended. Three committed suicide while under investigation, but were expelled from the Party posthumously. Four were sentenced to death. Twenty-eight received the death penalty with reprieve, eighteen were sentenced to life imprisonment, forty were given fixed-term prison sentences, fifteen were disciplined within the Party but were not tried in China’s courts, and eleven are still under investigation.

Punishments or Outcomes for Corrupt Officials

To what extent does Bo Xilai’s life sentence accord with these sentencing patterns?

Since the Tiananmen Crackdown on June 4, 1989, only three members of the Politburo have been . Chen Xitong, Party Secretary of Beijing, who was convicted of embezzling 556,000 RMB (U.S.$67,000) and of dereliction of duty and sentenced to sixteen years in prison in 1998; Chen Liangyu, Party Secretary of Shanghai, who was convicted of embezzling 2.39 million RMB (U.S.$335,000) and of abuse of power and sentenced to eighteen years in 2008; and Bo Xilai, who was convicted of embezzling 5 million RMB (U.S.$815,000) and taking bribes worth 20.44 million RMB (U.S.$3.238 million) and sentenced to life imprisonment plus an additional seven years for a conviction of abuse of power.

Amount of Money Politburo Members Were Convicted of Taking

The total amount the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court convicted Bo of taking through graft and bribes—25.44 million RMB or U.S.$4.03 million—even taking inflation and the relative size of the Chinese economy into account—was much greater than that of his Politburo counterparts. Bo’s sentence, perhaps in correspondence with the monetary dimension of his corruption, was the harshest. Since the death of Mao in 1976, Bo has been the only member of the Politburo to be sentenced to life in prison for charges of corruption.

How do Bo’s crimes compare to the other thirteen officials in our survey who were given life sentences for corruption over the past ten years (2003-2012)? They were convicted of taking an average of 7.12 million RMB (U.S.$1.083 million) through embezzlement, bribes, or a combination of the two. Bo’s combined ill-gotten gains total 25.44 million RMB (U.S.$4.03 million)—more than three times that much. In the chart below, each one of these thirteen officials is represented with a black square. Bo’s is the red square.

Bo Xilai’s Loot Vs. Loot of Officials Sentenced to Life In Prison

So, where does Bo fit in? Within the same ten-year period, twenty-four officials were sentenced to the death penalty with a two-year reprieve. They illegally took an average of 21.74 million RMB (U.S.$2.859 million). In the figure below, each square is one of these officials. Again, Bo’s square is red. The amount of money he was convicted of taking puts him squarely in the range of convictions that resulted in a sentence of the death penalty with reprieve. None of these officials was executed, but China’s Criminal Code requires that those sentenced to the death penalty with reprieve must serve a minimum of twenty years, whereas those sentenced to life imprisonment must only serve a minimum of thirteen years.

Bo Xilai’s Loot Vs. Loot of Officials Sentenced to Death Penalty With Reprieve

Removal of Corrupt High Officials Under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao

The figure below shows the number of officials in our survey who were removed from office each year between 1989 when Jiang Zemin became China’s top leader and 2012 when Hu Jintao finished his tenure. Hu Jintao assumed office in 2002.

Number of Purges Under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao

During Jiang Zemin’s administration, forty-eight officials were removed from office on charges of corruption. Under Hu, sixty-three officials were dismissed for corruption. Jiang led the country for fourteen years and Hu for ten. Under Jiang, 3.43 officials per year lost their positions due to corruption, as compared with 6.3 per year under Hu’s leadership.

Total Purges (left) / Purges Per Year (right)

To further compare the Jiang and Hu administrations, we sorted the punishments into three categories: High (which includes death penalty, death penalty with reprieve, and life imprisonment), Medium (fixed-term Imprisonment), and Light (Party discipline, which includes reprimand, loss of official position, expulsion from the Communist party, etc., all without the participation of China’s courts.)

Hu’s Are Heavier: Severity of Sentences Under Hu and Jiang

Of the officials in our survey, those prosecuted under the Hu administration received more severe punishment than those removed from office under Jiang’s administration. Sixty-four percent of the corrupt officials removed from office during Hu’s administration received punishments in the High category, versus twenty-two percent under Jiang. Twenty-six percent of officials received Medium sentences under Hu and fifty percent under Jiang. Only eight percent received Light sentences under Hu, versus twenty-three percent during Jiang’s era.

How does the sum of money an official has been convicted of taking illegally relate to the sentence?

Article 282 of China’s Criminal Code stipulates that the penalty for embezzlement or bribery involving more than 100,000 RMB (U.S.$12,063) is either a fixed-term sentence of no less than ten years or a life sentence, and may also include confiscation of property. The law notes that if “the circumstances are especially serious, [the offender] shall be sentenced to death and also to confiscation of property.”

Nearly all of the corrupt officials in our survey plundered sums far greater than 100,000 RMB, and the law allows considerable leeway in determining sentences. Not that judges themselves necessarily have the discretion to make those judgements. The Communist Party exercises extensive control over charges, convictions, and sentences, particularly in politically sensitive cases like those covered in our survey.

But given this important caveat, what role does the amount of money an official is convicted of taking play in determining his or her punishment? Given the opacity of China’s criminal courts and the extent of the Party’s involvement in them, it is difficult to say whether the amount of money a given official was convicted of taking illegally was the actual amount he or she took, or an amount fabricated by his or her political enemies. Nevertheless, under both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, those convicted of taking larger amounts of money received correspondingly more severe sentences.

During Jiang’s administration (from 1989 to 2002), harsher punishments correspond to greater sums taken. For death penalty with reprieve, the average amount in question was 12.55 million RMB (U.S.$1.506 million). For life imprisonment, the mean was 1.79 million RMB (U.S.$214,778). And for fixed-term imprisonment, it was 649,400 RMB (U.S.$77,920).

Under Hu Jintao (from 2002 to 2012), for death penalty with reprieve the average amount was also the highest, 21.737 million RMB (U.S.$2.859 million), life imprisonment was 8.432 million RMB (U.S.$1.109 million), and fixed-term imprisonment was 2.507 million RMB (U.S.$329,695).

Average Amounts Officials Were Convicted of Taking and Severity of Punishment


  1. All RMB values convert to U.S. dollar amounts at the exchange rate of the corresponding year. For all cross-year average values, we use the median year exchange rate.
Ouyang Bin is an Arthur Ross Fellow at the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society in New York and Associate Editor of ChinaFile, where his major interests concentrate on China’s political...
Zhang Mengqi is currently a graduate student in the International Relations program at New York University, focusing on refugee studies and comparative politics. Before coming to the U.S., she...
David Barreda is the Visuals Editor for ChinaFile. Barreda worked as a staff photojournalist at the San Jose Mercury News, the Rocky Mountain News, and the Miami Herald. He holds a Masters degree in...





Rich Man, Pu’er Man

Christina Larson
“These men always have machetes,” shouts the driver. Through trees along an unpaved road, he spots a ramshackle hut, slows down, and warns his passengers: this is a checkpoint. It’s the only way to enforce rules in this part of the jungle, at the...



Sino-Russian Trade After a Year of Sanctions

Alexander Gabuev from Carnegie Moscow Center
After a year of intense flirtation, the Sino-Russian relationship is beginning to look like a one-sided love affair. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China last week—his first since the United States and European Union enacted...



Parading the People’s Republic

Geremie R. Barmé
In light of the September 3, 2015, mega military parade held at Tiananmen Square in Beijing both to mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of Second Sino-Japanese War in 1945 and to acclaim the achievements of Xi Jinping, China’s Chairman of...



Is China About to Plunge the World Into Recession?

David Wertime from Tea Leaf Nation
On Aug. 18, China’s stock market plummeted by a vertigo-inducing 6.2 percent in one day of trading, part of a months-long decline that’s erased over $3 trillion worth of market value from the country’s equity markets. That followed last week’s...



Hong Kong’s Umbrella Protests Were More Than Just a Student Movement

Samson Yuen, Edmund Cheng
For almost three months in late 2014, what came to be known as the Umbrella Movement amplified Hong Kong’s bitter struggle for the democracy its people were promised when China assumed control of the territory from Britain in 1997. Originally a...



Does Xi Jinping Represent a Return to the Mao Era?

Andrew G. Walder, Roderick MacFarquhar, Susan Shirk, Orville Schell
Following is an edited transcript of a live event hosted at Asia Society New York on May 21, 2015, “ChinaFile Presents: Does Xi Jinping Represent a Return to the Politics of the Mao Era?” The evening convened the scholars Roderick MacFarquhar and...



Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Yaqiu Wang
On the morning of March 16, 48-year-old Huang Shunfang went to her local hospital located in Fanghu Township in the central Chinese province of Henan. Her doctor diagnosed her with gastritis, gave her a dose of antacids through an IV, and sent her...



Where Do We Draw the Line on Balancing China?

from Foreign Policy
Is it time for the United States to get serious about balancing China? According to Robert Blackwill and Ashley Tellis, the answer is an emphatic yes. In a new Council on Foreign Relations report, they portray China as steadily seeking to increase...



Frank Talk About Hong Kong’s Future from Margaret Ng

Margaret Ng, Ira Belkin, Orville Schell
Following is the transcript of a recent ChinaFile Breakfast with Margaret Ng, the former Hong Kong legislator in discussion with Ira Belkin of New York University Law School and Orville Schell, ChinaFile Publisher and Arthur Ross Director of the...



The City of Urumqi Prohibition on Wearing Items That Mask the Face or Robe the Body

A Proclamation from the Standing Committee of the Urumqi People’s CongressThe “Regulation banning the wearing of items that mask the face or robe the body in public places in the city of Urumqi,” which was passed at the 21st Meeting of the 15th...