A former senior Communist Party official who was once tipped to be China‘s future president has pleaded guilty to accepting millions in bribes at his trial on Thursday.
Sun Zhengcai’s case set the stage for one of the highest-level convictions in President Xi Jinping’s campaign against corruption and political disloyalty.
In July, Sun was abruptly removed from his post as the ruling Communist Party’s chief of the southwestern city of Chongqing and was replaced by Chen Miner, who is a protege of Xi Jinping.
Sun was also the youngest member of the Communist Party’s elite 25-member Politburo before he was expelled and was widely considered a strong candidate to sit on the Politburo Standing Committee, made up of China’s top leaders.
Chen Miner also filled Sun’s post at the Politburo after he was expelled.
Xi has presided over a sweeping corruption crackdown since coming to power in 2012 and has vowed to target both “tigers” and “flies”, a reference to elite officials and also ordinary bureaucrats.
Sun’s case mirrors the downfall of another former Chongqing chief, Bo Xilai, whose arrest shook the previous party shuffle in 2012.
Bo, who was at the time considered a potential future leader, is now serving a life sentence in prison for corruption and abuse of power, charges that Sun is also facing.
Sun and his alleged associates were accused of accepting money and assets worth 170 million yuan ($27m) in return for providing help to unspecified organisations and individuals, business operations and other matters, the court said.
The official Xinhua news agency said in February that Sun “took advantage of the privileges” of his political career “to gain benefits for others and illegally received money and items in extremely large amounts”.
He has also been identified most closely with the China Youth League faction associated with Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, which Xi had effectively sidelined in the succession process.
“He was certainly corrupt and no one doubts this, but this also indicates that Xi Jinping more or less wants to have the third term for himself, having rejected any secession arrangement for him in 2022,” Joseph Cheng, a political analyst based in Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera.
“If a senior official, in this case, a politburo member, is prosecuted, then there is no doubt that the sentence will stay and he will be sentenced to prison, which will mean the end of his political life,” he added.
Cheng also said that the anti-corruption campaign is “essential to the main commands of the Communist Party regime”.
He added that “in China, an anti-corruption campaign is a very useful political instrument in the hands of Xi Jinping, generating a certain deterrence effect among his political enemies”.