Sun Zhengcai, a former political high-flyer once tipped to be among China’s next generation of leaders, was sentenced to life in prison for bribery on Tuesday.

Sun’s downfall followed that of Bo Xilai, his predecessor as party chief in Chongqing, and an ongoing crackdown in the southwestern megacity could snare a senior police officer who was once close to Bo.

The Tianjin No 1 Intermediate People’s Court said Sun, a former member of the Politburo, was convicted of taking more than 170 million yuan (US$26.7 million) in bribes directly or through designated third parties, state-run news agency Xinhua reported. 

He was also stripped of his political rights for life, and all his property and illicit gains confiscated, the report said.

Fallen Chinese political star Sun Zhengcai admits taking US$27m in bribes

Chen Miner, a protégé of President Xi Jinping who is now in charge of Chongqing, has repeatedly called on officials there to banish the “pernicious influence” of his disgraced predecessors.

A source close to the Chongqing police said the chief of Fuling district police Zhou Jingping, 52, recently became a target of an internal probe. 

“Zhou was suspended from his work before being placed under investigation in late April,” said the source.

The source added that Zhou was once a close aide of Bo’s police chief and right-hand man Wang Lijun and had also gained the favour of the party chief.

Zhou’s profile remained on the Fuling police department website on Tuesday, but reports about his recent public appearances no longer featured on the homepage, and links to other articles about Zhou are no longer accessible on the police website.

The source said that Zhou had fallen out with Wang in mid-2011, when Zhou was transferred from his post as head of the political department with the Chongqing Public Security Bureau to be the police chief in Fuling district. 

This move may also explain why Zhou had managed to survive the political storm that followed Bo and Wang’s downfall in 2012, according to the source.

Wang is now serving a 15-year sentence and four of his most senior aides in the police force – Guo Weiguo, Li Yang, Wang Pengfei and Wang Zhi – have also been jailed.

It is unclear whether Zhou was implicated during Sun’s downfall even though he was “re-elected” to be the police chief and deputy government head of Fuling district in early 2017 when Sun was still in charge.

‘Vast sums linked’ to corruption case of fallen Chinese high-flyer Sun Zhengcai

Sun, 54, pleaded guilty at his trial on April 12 and will not appeal against the sentence, state television reported on Tuesday. 

“I sincerely confess to and regret the crimes [I committed]. [I] accept the court’s verdict [and] will not appeal,” Sun said in court in footage aired by China Central Television. “I will earnestly accept re-education.”

The amount of bribes involved was punishable by death but the court said it had taken mitigating factors into account, including that most of the bribes were taken by “designated parties” and that Sun gave investigators additional, previously unknown information about his crimes.

Chinese news outlet Caixin had reported that Sun’s “designated parties” included two businesswomen.

The court in the northern city of Tianjin said Sun committed the crimes while he was a district Communist Party boss in Beijing in 2002, when he was the minister of agriculture, and during his stints as party chief of the northeastern province of Jilin and Chongqing. 

The court said Sun took advantage of his position to seek profits for others, including helping others to win project tenders, secure government approval for projects and gain promotions. 

Sun was sacked as Chongqing’s party boss in July and placed under investigation for corruption in the run-up to the party’s national leadership reshuffle in October.

He was the youngest member of the Politburo before he was expelled and was once widely considered a strong candidate to sit on the Politburo Standing Committee, the Chinese leadership’s inner sanctum.

Chinese businesswomen ‘detained in fallout from graft investigation into former Communist high-flyer Sun Zhengcai’

Bo was also a Politburo member before he was placed under investigation in 2012 and later sentenced to life in prison for corruption and abuse of power.

Chen Daoyin, a mainland political analyst, said although Sun had been sentenced for taking bribes, his downfall was mainly caused by political problems. 

In Chen’s view, the prolonged crackdown on “pernicious influences” in Chongqing sends a strong signal to provincial leaders across China.

“The message is loud and clear: local leaders should pledge absolute loyalty to the central leadership,” he said.

“Xi is now the unchallenged core of the party, and no matter if he ever decides to pick a successor or not, the political future of provincial leaders should be decided by, and only by, the central leadership – they have no room to think for themselves,” he added.

Deng Yuwen, a former editor with a newspaper affiliated with the Central Party School, said Chongqing’s prolonged crackdown might not have been the result of orders from above.

“To me, it seems likely that it is a way for Chen to show his loyalty and political correctness to the top leadership,” he said. 

Additional reporting by Matt Ho

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