China handed down a relatively lenient punishment when a court in the northern city of Tianjin jailed the country's former security chief for life, in an indication that President Xi Jinping may now be focusing on healing divisions within the country's political elite caused by his anti-corruption campaign, analysts said on Friday.
Zhou Yongkang, who had spearheaded a massive nationwide "stability maintenance" system, was jailed for life by the Tianjin No. 1 Intermediate People's Court after being found guilty of bribe-taking, abuse of power, and disclosure of state secrets in a secret trial.
Zhou's personal assets were confiscated and he was also deprived of political rights for life after the court found he had accepted bribes totaling around 130 million yuan (U.S.$21.3 million).
But the sentence was lighter than the suspended death sentence that was widely expected based on previous graft cases, political commentators said.
Prominent rights lawyer Mo Shaoping said he had represented a former deputy Beijing mayor accused of taking bribes worth nearly seven million yuan, and that his client had been handed a suspended death sentence.
"These bribery cases in China can be very inconsistent in terms of the harshness of sentencing," Mo told RFA. "You can look at other examples, including former deputy Beijing mayor Liu Shihua whom I represented ... who took bribes of ... seven million, and then [Zhou] only gets a life sentence for 120 million yuan."
"Clearly, there's a lot of inconsistency here in terms of the harshness of the penalties, even when you have taken mitigating factors into account," Mo said.
The Tianjin court said that Zhou, who commanded huge political support and financial clout via the domestic security regime and through state-owned petroleum and mining interests, as well as in the southwestern province of Sichuan, had received a "lesser punishment" because of his confession, the return of the bribes, and a lack of serious consequences resulting from his disclosure of state secrets.
Zhou is the highest-ranking member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and the first former member of the all-powerful Politburo standing committee to be targeted so far in Xi's anti-corruption campaign.
However, analysts say his sentencing comes amid growing opposition within party ranks over the campaign, which many say resembles a little too closely the political in-fighting of the Mao era.
New York-based Hu Ping, editor of the Chinese-language monthly Beijing Spring, said that Xi has been selective in picking the campaign's targets.
"To a very large extent, this is about strengthening his personal power," Hu told RFA.
"I think Xi Jinping knows very well that there is no better excuse than the fight against corruption for carrying out his political power struggles and factional purges," he said.
"It doesn't mean that Xi has an issue with Zhou Yongkang's highly oppressive stability maintenance system," Hu added.
Hong Kong-based China expert Willy Lam said Xi, who launched a nationwide graft crackdown targeting high-ranking "tigers" and low-ranking "flies," now needs to rebuild ties to those within the party who have been alienated by the anti-corruption campaign.
"Xi now wants party unity so that he can move as many of his cronies and proteges into the Central Committee and Politburo at the 19th Party Congress [expected in 2017]," Lam said in comments e-mailed to RFA on Friday.
"He does not want to make more enemies, hence the relatively light sentence for Zhou," said Lam, who had also predicted a suspended death sentence for the former security czar.
Political writer Hu Shaojiang agreed, saying there was scant basis for such a sentence in Chinese law, and that the authorities clearly had a vested interest in limiting the fallout from the Zhou trial.
"The secret trial ensured that all of those people who had given or received bribes, or ties between government and business, couldn't come into the public eye," Hu wrote in a commentary broadcast on RFA's Cantonese Service.
"They were also afraid that Zhou might learn from [jailed former Chongqing party chief] Bo Xilai and retract his confession, as well as revealing who among the Chinese leadership had aided and abetted him," he said.
"He could also have revealed criminal acts or abuses of power on the part of members of the political elite."
Balance of factions
Chongqing-based political scholar Zhang Qi said the sentence also indicates that Xi may be reining in the current head of the party's anti-graft body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).
"My feeling is that there is now an equilibrium between the Zhou Yongkang faction in the party, and the faction around Xi Jinping," Zhang said.
"Otherwise, there is no way that the Zhou Yongkang case would have been handled in such a low-key way."
He said Xi's anti-corruption campaign could be toned down in future.
"I think we are seeing the beginning of the end of the tiger hunt," Zhang added.
Zhou's post at the head of the Politics and Law Commission was downgraded to report to the Politburo standing committee post following his retirement in November 2012.
However, the "stability maintenance" regime he spearheaded has continued to expand its reach, commanding a budget of some U.S.$33 billion in 2014, a figure which has since been kept secret.
According to Hu Ping, the Xi administration has clearly done all it can to further Zhou's security system for clamping down on criticism of the regime and suppressing social unrest.
"Xi Jinping has taken this even further than Zhou Yongkang did," Hu said.
Reported by Qiao Long and He Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.