The Communist Party leadership's announcement last week to expel Liu Zhijun, the former minister of railways, and turn him over for criminal prosecution on corruption charges should come as no surprise. Since February of last year, Liu has been under investigation by the party's anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). Liu's alleged crimes, including amassing a fortune through bribery and living a morally degenerate life, were established soon after his arrest.
However, the timing is more significant as it came in the run-up to the party's 18th congress, which will approve the country's once-in-a-decade leadership transition, scheduled for autumn this year. It is an unwritten rule that the party leadership announces the punishment in several corruption cases involving high-level officials ahead of such an important occasion, to signal its determination to root out graft.
Indeed, expectations are building up that the mainland leadership will also make public their decisions on what to do with the even bigger scandal involving Bo Xilai, once on track to become one of the country's top leaders. In March, Bo was removed as the party secretary in Chongqing, and in April he was placed under investigation for 'serious discipline violations' and stripped of his membership in the party's Central Committee and Politburo. Meanwhile, his wife Gu Kailai is a murder suspect in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood, and his former police chief Wang Lijun was arrested after seeking shelter at the US consulate in Chengdu .
The scandal has attracted worldwide attention and dealt a severe blow to the image and legitimacy of the party, as well as casting a dark shadow over the upcoming leadership transition.
The latest speculation is that China's leaders have decided to wrap up Bo's case as early as August so as to clear the biggest political uncertainty ahead of the congress.
A total of three agencies are involved in probing Bo's case. The secretive Ministry of State Security is responsible for Wang's case, as he is accused of treason over his flight to the US consulate. The Ministry of Public Security is handling the murder case involving Bo's wife and Zhang Xiaojun, a domestic helper at Bo's home.
While treason carries the maximum penalty of death, Wang is unlikely to suffer that fate because he was driven to his desperate measure over fears for his life.
Bo is the biggest headache, not least because he is the most senior official to fall from grace in more than a decade. Compared to ex-Politburo members like former Beijing party secretary Chen Xitong, who was convicted of bribery, Bo's case is much more complicated. There has been intense speculation about Bo's close ties to the armed forces, his hunger for power, and how much he knows about Heywood's murder. But linking Bo to such allegations would prove too damaging for the party's unity and image.
Moreover, Bo is believed to be denying adamantly that he had prior knowledge of the murder plot. It is more likely that when the CCDI announces the results of the investigation against him in the next two months, it will pin him with charges of corruption and conniving in the crimes of his relatives and subordinates, without linking him directly to the murder case. The most CCDI can do is expel him from the party and turn him over for criminal prosecution. That trial is certain to result in a lengthy jail sentence, but is likely to occur after the 18th congress.
His wife, who is facing murder charges, is unlikely to face the death penalty. The latest speculation is that she will be diagnosed as mentally unbalanced, which could become a mitigating factor in her sentencing. Zhang, who is most likely to have carried out the murder, is expected to face the death penalty.