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With wife's conviction, what is next for China's Bo Xilai?

Jason Lee / Reuters

Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai waves as he attends the opening ceremony of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in March 2012.

BEIJING -- Monday's murder conviction for the wife of Bo Xilai, once one of China's most powerful men, may have brought to an end the investigation into the death of British businessman Neil Heywood but it left in question the fate of her husband, who is being pursued for party "disciplinary violations."

Is Bo the next target of a deepening struggle? Or will he be spared from harsher punishments? Leading China analysts have varied responses but there is unanimity that Gu Kailai's conviction was also a nail in the coffin of her politician husband's career.

Wife of disgraced Chinese leader gets death sentence with reprieve


'Politically carbonized'
To counter Bo's "continuing popularity" among some segments of the population, China's Communist Party attempted to depict the case in terms of the most heinous of crimes -- murder, said Joseph Fewsmith, a leading expert on Chinese politics at Boston University and author of several books on China.

The wife of a disgraced Chinese politician has been given a suspended death sentence for her role in the death of British businessman, Neil Heywood.  ITV's Angus Walker reports.

"It certainly is a case of murder, but in a sense, the killing of Heywood allows the party to sidestep all the other issues -- the way Bo conducted his 'strike black' campaign, the so-called Chongqing model and his political ambitions -- by focusing on the murder," Fewsmith said.

Strike black refers to Bo's anti-corruption and anti-crime campaign that implicated millionaires, local officials, police officers and gangsters. Under the Chongqing model that Bo advocated, the state increased its role in society and led huge public projects.

"Despite the strong evidence of criminal activity (murder), it seems likely that many will continue to read this case as part of a political struggle," Fewsmith said.

And in this political struggle, China's leftist elite -- known as neo-cons -- are the likely losers, said Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University and a prominent scholar on China.

Closed-door murder trial: Wife of ousted politician Bo Xilai faces China court

"Some neo-cons may have tried or be willing to save Bo Xilai, in order to serve their own interests. I am inclined to think they will fail, because both the outside world and the Chinese blogosphere know too much about this terrible couple, their family and their wealth," Cabestan told NBC News.

"In other words, Bo is a liability, he is worn out, he is politically carbonized," he added.

'Chongqing model' dead or alive?
"But we should not jump to the conclusion that the reformists will enjoy an upper hand in the coming months," Cabestan said, adding that the Chongqing model that Bo championed was not sustainable.

Stringer / China / Reuters

China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai (R) and his wife Gu Kailai (L), who was found guilty of murdering a British businessman.

"It's too expensive for the state, too hostile to private businesses and too distant from the rule of law," Cabestan said.

"But the pro-state, pro-state-owned enterprises leaders have not been totally defeated and there are so many vested interests around the perpetuation of a strong and entrepreneurial party-state," Cabestan said.

Professor Bo Zhiyue, expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, agreed that Bo was finished politically, but argued that his governing style was not necessarily dead.

"With Bo as a major competitor out of the way, the new leadership could be more stable," Bo Zhiyue told NBC News.

"However, they can't avoid using some of Bo's programs in its new policies because Bo's Chongqing model has really provided a lot of good experiments for China's future development, in particular with regards to income inequality, public housing, and new growth model."

Scandal sends China's netizens into feeding frenzy

China's leadership is acutely aware of the growing income inequality that the country's economic prosperity has produced, with newly wealthy political and business elites prompting resentment among the majority.

Indeed, official and online media have given coverage to a growing number of grassroots protests driven by the discontent felt by those left behind in the economic race, or those alienated by the corrupt collusion of wealth and power.

Corruption may be widespread in China, but one official crossed a line when he wiretapped President Hu Jin Tau. Now that official's wife is a murder suspect. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

"There is consensus that the government needs to allocate more resources to address social injustice and income inequality," according to Li Mingjiang, China politics professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, noting the efforts of China's leadership in this regard.

"In that sense, the Chongqing model is not dead at all," he told NBC News.

Appeasing the poor
The government has been trying appease many people in undeveloped and poor regions of Western China, for example, by increasing state investments in these regions. Nevertheless, the consensus among China watchers is that Bo went too far in his politics and governing style. 

More China coverage from NBCNews.com's Behind The Wall

"Bo Xilai (was) too extreme in his policy in Chongqing, particularly his Cultural Revolution style political campaign," Li said. "These extreme policies are dead, at least for the coming years."

However, China's ruling elite had to deal with the fact that technology made it impossible to keep the case under wraps.  

"The amount of information and the intensity of discussion that were revealed in the social media exerted a lot of pressure on the party to release more information about the Bo Xilai case partly in order to forestall and clear rumors," Li added.

In what's being called the biggest Chinese political scandal in years, Bo Xilai, the Communist  Party secretary in Chongqing, was sacked Thursday. NBC's Ed Flanagan reports.

"The party has to be very careful not to unnecessarily antagonize Bo's supporters and sympathizers because these people are vocal and scrutinizing ... various forms of social media," he said.

To Cabestan, Bo's "political death or carbonization have been in part caused by the Internet and the speed with which outside information and rumors have circulated in China."

In sum, the experts with whom NBC News spoke agreed that while Bo may be neutralized through the case against his wife and the diciplinary measure he faces, the country's leadership will likely tread carefully given Bo's enduring popularity.

So the suspended death sentence handed down to Bo Xilai's wife signifies a "decision made by the highest leadership," said Professor Jerome Cohen, a veteran authority on Chinese law at New York University.

"The state leaders know that Bo Xilai is still very popular and has lot of support, and to that extent, the court's decision is the most popular option and the best compromise they could have come out with," he added.

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