Liu Zhijun , who once reigned over the nation's large and powerful railways ministry, received a suspended death sentence yesterday for abusing his office and accepting tens of millions of yuan in bribes.
The former railways minister, whose death sentence is subject to a two-year reprieve, was the highest ranking official convicted since President Xi Jinping came to power, promising to crack down on graft.
The verdict handed down by Beijing No 2 Intermediate People's Court was watched for potential clues as to how Xi's government will handle the prosecution of a more high-profile official - former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai .
The court said Liu, while overseeing a massive high-speed rail expansion, had taken bribes and other gifts worth 64.6 million yuan (HK$81.62 million) and helped get 11 people promoted in exchange for favours.
Liu's two-year reprieve means his death sentence could be commuted to life imprisonment with good behaviour. His jail term could be subsequently reduced to as little as 13 years if he is not cited for further lapses.
Liu, 60, who was forced by "illness" to remain standing during a hearing earlier this month, could also be possibly released on medical parole. Other disgraced officials such as former Beijing party secretary Chen Xitong , have been shown similar leniency.
Video from Chinese state media
Chen Ziming , a Beijing political commentator, said: "Such high-ranking officials have rarely been punished with the death penalty." He expected a similar result for Bo. There is not yet a date for Bo's trial.
Chen Yongmiao , a political analyst and rights activist, said Liu's sentence showed the Communist Party still felt obliged to protect its "little brothers", despite Xi's promises to curb corruption.
"I expect Liu to be released after five or six years in jail," he said. "As senior officials, they always have a way."
After the verdict, Xinhua published a commentary saying the result showed the Supreme People's Court was determined to "strictly punish corruption".
The piece said the verdict proves that everyone is "equal in front of the law" and that the court would go after "both the tigers and the flies" - a phrase Xi has used to illustrate his willingness to prosecute top officials.
The commentary was widely mocked on microblogs.
Niu Wenwen , the publisher of Entrepreneur magazine, contrasted Liu's sentence with that of Wu Ying , a young multimillionaire, whose death sentence for financial fraud was suspended only after a public outcry.
"It could never be justified that Liu was sentenced to suspended death while Wu Ying was sentenced to death," Niu said, adding that being a party official was "a profession with the lowest risk and highest return".