China sentenced the former Communist Party chief of the country's financial capital to 18 years in prison Friday, but spared him the usual punishment for serious economic crimes — death.
Chen Liangyu, who had been a member of China's powerful 24-seat Politburo, was the highest-level Chinese official to be purged in a decade. Like most high-ranking officials, however, Chen avoided the death penalty.
"This is what I suspect they see as a reasonable compromise," said Steve Tsang, a China expert at St. Antony's College at Britain's Oxford University. "A strong message was sent out, yet it protects current and former members of the Politburo from the full price they have to pay for certain crimes in China."
Chen had been accused of being at the center of a scandal involving the misuse of a third of Shanghai's pension funds — a case that highlighted Beijing's troubles in keeping corrupt officials from looting social security funds set up only a decade ago.
Official showed 'remorse"
The official Xinhua News Agency said Chen was jailed "for taking bribes and abusing power." It said the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People's Court showed leniency because the 61-year-old Chen "showed remorse" and returned the money.
Chen's lawyer, Gao Zicheng, indicated Chen would appeal. "If Chen appeals, it's not over," he said before hanging up.
Chen showed no emotion in court footage aired on state-run China Central Television. It was his first appearance on state-run TV since he was summarily dismissed from his posts in 2006.
The party chief in Shanghai, China's commercial and financial capital, is one of the country's more powerful posts. Chen's removal signaled President Hu Jintao's growing power within the factions that compose the party's collective leadership. The man who replaced Chen, Xi Jinping, has already been promoted again and is widely seen as being moved into position to succeed Hu.
The Shanghai scandal saw more than an estimated $400 million in pension funds improperly invested in real estate and toll road projects that included Shanghai's new Formula One race track. More than 25 local officials have been detained in the investigation.
Chen used his influence as party boss in 2004 to channel $120 million in social security funds to an unidentified company, Xinhua said citing court documents.
At the center of Chen's rise and fall lay real estate deals, a driver of Shanghai's fantastic growth. The court found him guilty of extorting money accepting bribes of more than $340,000 from organizations and individuals over an 18-year period from the time he headed one of Shanghai's districts in 1988.
Among Chen's crimes, Xinhua said, were funneling land to his brother to develop, getting a new house for his father and arranging a deputy general manager's job for his son at the local soccer team, the Shanghai Shenhua Football Club.
Tsang, the China expert, said the reported amount was almost certainly far less than Chen actually took and was fixed by political bargaining.
"The party boss of Shanghai guilty of a quarter million dollars' worth of bribery? Of course it's too little! Come on, give me a break," Tsang said, adding that the sentence was clearly politically decided.
The court on Friday also confiscated $43,000 of Chen's assets.
Corruption is popular topic
Corruption is a popular topic in China. In December, a Web site created by China's newly created anti-corruption bureau crashed after barely a day because too many visitors tried to log on to register complaints.
In 2006, the vice mayor of Beijing who oversaw Olympic construction projects was fired and expelled from the Communist Party on charges of bribery, though Beijing officials insisted Liu Zhihua's alleged misdeeds had nothing to do with Olympic projects. He has yet to be put on trial.
At the same time, China installed a new supervisor for construction projects for the Beijing Olympics as part of efforts to prevent corruption. In January 2007, China's top auditor said fighting corruption in construction projects for the Olympics would be a priority.
Last year, nearly 2,000 local government officials were either disciplined or charged with crimes, the Xinhua News Agency reported in late December, citing the Communist Party's organization department.
"Ah, what country doesn't have corruption?" asked a woman selling pirated DVDs on a Shanghai street after being told of Chen's sentencing.
"What can I say about this? Are they going to take the money and give it back to the people? Ha! I don't think so," said the woman, who gave her family name as Zhang.