HONG KONG - China's shamed princeling Bo Xilai - jailed for life on Sunday for embezzlement, taking bribes and abuse of power - may be exiting the public stage as a disgraced cuckold who could not rein in his wayward family, but his many supporters still cling to hope for his eventual exoneration and (dream on) rehabilitation.
They can point to Bo's father, Bo Yibo, for encouragement and inspiration. The elder Bo was imprisoned three times during his lifetime only to reemerge in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong's decade-long purge of his political enemies that ended with his death in 1976, to take a leading role in Communist Party affairs.
Bo Yibo died in 2007, aged 98, and is now regarded as one of the party's "eight immortals" for his political longevity and for his
substantial contribution to the economic reforms launched by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and 1990s.
Fans of the 64-year-old junior Bo, whose numbers have only increased in the wake of the lively and defiant self-defense put up by the former Politburo member during his five-day trial in the eastern city of Jinan last month, now wish for a similar Phoenix-like narrative for their fallen hero. Sunday's harsh sentence, however, renders that scenario highly unlikely.
Given Bo's popular appeal and status in the party before his fall, not to mention the free rein he was granted to defend himself during his trial, there was much media speculation that his sentence would be light - under 15 years. The unprecedented openness of the trial - which could be followed on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter - added to such speculation.
A punishment of 15 years or less would have compared favorably to judgments handed down in two previous high-profile corruption trials with which Bo's case is routinely compared: in 1998, former Beijing party chief Chen Xitong received a 16-year jail term, while in 2008 vanquished Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu was hit with an 18-year sentence. Neither man was given anything like the time and space allowed Bo to defend himself.
As it turned out, Bo's fiercely defiant courtroom stance, which he stretched even further on Sunday by shouting "unfair" and "unjust" as the verdict was delivered, clearly worked against him. Acting no doubt on instructions coming from the highest Communist Party perches in Beijing, the chief judge in the Intermediate People's Court in the eastern city of Jinan brought the hammer down on Bo's career and any dreams he and his followers may have harbored for an eventual comeback.
The unrepentant Bo is likely to appeal the verdict but, even if that appeal were accepted, the conclusion is foregone: There will be no next act in the political life of Bo Xilai.
That doesn't mean his name and legacy will not burn on in the nation's memory. Despite his humiliation, Bo continues to be a popular figure.
Online chatter shows that many netizens believe Bo's portrayal of himself as an innocent victim of turncoat Wang Lijun, his former police chief during his five years as party boss of the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, and of his high-flying wife, Gu Kailai, and their playboy son, Bo Guagua.
Gu is now serving a suspended death sentence for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, whom she accused of making threats against her son. She was found guilty after a one-day trial in August 2012 and appeared at her husband's trial via video to offer testimony supporting the charges against him.
Calling Gu "crazy", Bo dismissed her testimony as unbelievable and attacked Wang - now serving 15 years behind bars for taking bribes, attempted defection and abuse of power - as an "abominable liar" who had developed "an extremely special relationship" with his wife.
Wang's face-to-face courtroom encounter with his erstwhile boss sparked some of the trial's most dramatic moments - with Wang at one point accusing Bo of punching him in the face after he had confronted his superior with evidence implicating Gu in the murder of Heywood and Bo then describing Wang's relationship with his wife as like "paint and glue" - a vivid sexual metaphor in Chinese.
As the prosecution's key witness to Bo's alleged abuse of power, Wang told the court that Bo demoted him as part of an attempt to cover up Heywood's murder once he had seen the evidence against his wife.
There was no mention during the trial of the hedonistic life of privilege attributed to Bo Guagua, 25, who has attended some of the best universities in the Western world - Oxford in England and Harvard and Columbia in the United States - and developed a reputation for partying and womanizing, but the younger Bo's excesses were already well-known internet fodder. Photographs of him smiling and partying with friends at a popular New York cafe only days after his father's trial had ended only reinforced that reputation.
The photographs immediately triggered a debate among China's microbloggers: many denounced Bo Guagua as an unfilial son who should be held accountable for the "bribe money" that had paid for his first-class education and lavish lifestyle; others, far fewer, defended his right to pursue a "happy life".
As his trial progressed, Bo Xilai conceded that he had been a bad husband and father but forcefully denied all charges against him.
In a letter to his family that circulated on the Internet last week and has reportedly been confirmed by sources close to the family as authentic, Bo continued to maintain his innocence and vowed that he would follow the example of his father, who endured years of imprisonment before his good name was restored.
"I was dragged into this and really wronged," Bo wrote in the letter, dated September 12, "but the truth will come out one day. Meanwhile, I will be waiting quietly in prison. Dad was thrown into prison multiple times in his lifetime, and I will look to him as my role model."
Bo added that he keeps a photograph of his mother - Hu Ming, who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution, according to official accounts - at his bedside, saying: "Father and mother have passed away, but their teachings continue to serve me well. I would not disgrace their glorious past. I could suffer even greater miseries."
Bo's post-trial story has also been complicated by a report this month in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post quoting anonymous sources in Dalian, a major seaport in northeastern Liaoning province, as saying the US$817,000 Bo was alleged to have embezzled while serving as Liaoning governor in 2002 was actually money transferred from Communist Party headquarters in Beijing to pay for a retirement villa that had been built in Dalian for then president Jiang Zemin.
The report cited "two separate sources with close ties to elite Dalian politics".
"It's very likely," one of the sources told the newspaper, "that the Dalian government had claimed the payment as some kind of public expenditure, and there was no need to pay it back to the local accounts after receiving the money from the central government."
And so what was painted by the prosecution at Bo's trial as unbridled corruption and greed on his part may have been just business as usual in Chinese politics - with the ambitious Bo doing his best to please the soon-to-retire Jiang so as to advance his career in China's rough-and-tumble political sweepstakes.
In the end, Bo was found guilty of pocketing $4.4 million through embezzlement and bribes - a goodly sum, yes, but a pittance in comparison to the staggering amounts other officials have been accused of taking. For example, Chen Liangyu was convicted of involvement in a scheme that misappropriated $400 million from Shanghai's pension fund.
Corruption - on a massive scale - is an endemic aspect of Communist Party rule in China, and it is not the reason Bo is going to spend the rest of his life in jail. His biggest crime - not mentioned by him or anyone else during his trial - was that he jockeyed for power and lost.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1