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(BEIJING) — A Chinese court sentenced former political high-flyer Sun Zhengcai to life in prison Tuesday for taking more than $26 million in bribes, making him one of the biggest names to fall in President Xi Jinping’s campaign against corruption and disloyalty.
Sun’s sentence handed down by the intermediate court in the northern port city of Tianjin appears to end a career that had once been seen as propelling him to the apex of power in the ruling Communist Party.
In addition to being imprisoned, Sun was deprived of political rights for life and all his personal property was confiscated.
State broadcaster CCTV showed Sun in court accepting the sentence and stating that he would not appeal.
Sun had been elevated to the party’s elite 25-member Politburo and was the top official in the western megacity of Chongqing before suddenly being removed in July.
He pleaded guilty to the charges and expressed repentance, according to Tianjin’s No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court, which imposed his sentence less than one month after the trial opened in a relatively swift resolution of the case.
In return for the bribes, Sun and his associates allegedly provided assistance to unspecified organizations and individuals with engineering contracts, business operations and other matters, the court said.
Experts say announced figures in corruption cases are often only a fraction of the real amounts involved, part of an effort by the party to avoid stirring public outrage.
Despite Sun’s conviction on criminal charges, Chinese leaders and party-run media have made it clear that Sun’s offenses were largely political in nature.
At a party meeting last year, a senior official stated that Sun and other senior figures prosecuted in Xi’s anti-corruption crackdown were “conspiring openly to usurp party leadership.”
Sun had been expelled from the party and dismissed from public office in September because he was suspected of “serious discipline violations,” a phrase that usually refers to bribery but increasingly also includes political disloyalty.
He was replaced in Chongqing by Xi protege Chen Min’er, who was subsequently promoted to the Politburo.
Sun had been identified most closely with the party’s China Youth League faction associated with Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, which Xi — who also heads the ruling party — has effectively sidelined in his consolidation of power.
Xi in March saw through a constitutional amendment removing term limits on the presidency, setting himself up to remain head of state indefinitely.
Sun’s failure to obtain approval from senior party figures for his political ambitions was the most likely cause of his downfall, said Ding Xueliang, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology.
In such political cases, investigators generally have little difficulty finding evidence of corruption, given the opportunities to exploit one’s office and the large family networks eager to take advantage, Ding said.
However, bringing political charges would be “extremely explosive” for a party intent on keeping secret its inner processes, factional rivalries and methods of distributing power and privilege, Ding said.
“Charging with corruption allows all the convenience of not releasing sensitive data while permitting the party to destroy (Sun’s) reputation,” he said.
Sun’s case recalls that of Bo Xilai, one of his predecessors as Chongqing party chief, who was once considered among the country’s most ambitious politicians and a potential rival to Xi. Bo was sentenced to life in prison in 2013 for corruption.
Other high-profile figures to fall in Xi’s campaign include, Zhou Yongkang, a retired member of the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee; and Guo Boxiong, a former top general. Both are serving life prison terms after being convicted of corruption or other misconduct.