The explanation as to what happened, the verdict and now the sentence has commanded a degree of credence

When the Bo Xilai issue first erupted in March and the details of Neil Heywood‘s murder began to emerge, it was commonly accepted that this posed a huge challenge to the Chinese leadership at a most sensitive time – the imminent change in the composition of the party and government leadership, an event which is surely of greater significance for the world than the forthcoming US presidential election.

There was understandable speculation that Bo Xilai’s detention could lead to wider rifts in the party leadership that might prove very difficult to manage and which might even lead to the postponement of the forthcoming party congress until the early months of next year.

Following the trial of Gu Kailai, Bo Xilai’s wife, and her sentencing on Monday, we can now view these events from a different vantage point. Whatever the widespread misgivings about the trial and the closed nature of the proceedings – and the fact that the whole process has clearly been vetted at the highest levels – the explanation as to what happened, the verdict and now the sentence has commanded a certain degree of credence. The explanations, though far from comprehensive, are, in the circumstances, more or less plausible: the conflict between Gu and Heywood, the threat to her son, the nature of their financial dealings, and the subsequent murder.

Likewise, the nature of the sentence – a suspended death penalty that could in practice mean a prison term of 14 years – has been viewed in the west as not inappropriate.

After months when it appeared as if the scandal might derail the party leadership, it now appears as if it is once more firmly in control of events. Any wider rifts that might have existed now seem to be under control – or, more likely perhaps, the ructions following Bo’s arrest were rather more limited than some have speculated, though in the absence of any hard information it is impossible to be sure.

With the Gu Kailai trial now closed, there remains the key question of what will happen to Bo himself, the overwhelmingly dominant player, without whom Heywood would still be unknown and Gu likewise. Bo Xilai is being investigated for “serious disciplinary violations” and it is widely expected that some kind of conclusion will be reached in the matter prior to the party congress.

Are there any conclusions that might be drawn at this stage, premature as they may well prove to be? From outward appearances, it seems as if the party is now within touching distance of overseeing a smooth transition to a new leadership, with Xi Jinping as the next president and Li Keqiang as the next premier. This will only be the second time this has been achieved since Mao, the first being the handover from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao. Similarly wholesale changes in the standing committee of the party, presently composed of nine people – and the body to which Bo was so energetically and ruthlessly campaigning to be admitted – are likely to be achieved without too much collateral damage.

There has been much speculation that, with China facing a new and difficult set of challenges, the Bo case was likely to become entwined with a range of growing policy disagreements. The difficult policy choices have certainly not gone away but it would appear that the Bo case has been sidelined without it serving to exacerbate the debates that are occupying the present leadership and which will surely dominate the agenda of the incoming leadership. This is no mean achievement.

It has been suggested, finally, that the Bo case is the biggest political conflict to have shaken Beijing since the Cultural Revolution. This has always appeared to be something of an over-statement. One only has to think of the prolonged struggle between Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, and Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death to realise that this was a febrile exaggeration. Given the issues that we now know were at stake in their argument, then whatever the present disagreements, they could hardly have been more fundamental or far-reaching than those between Deng and Hua. Deng, after all, was about to take China in an entirely new direction and utterly transform the country in the process.

– Martin Jacques is the author of When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order