Could Bo Xilai be housed in China's 'luxury' prison?

By Celia Hatton
BBC News, Beijing

image captionIt is believed that Bo Xilai would not be sent to a regular prison in China

Like father, like son? Bo Xilai was once a shining star in the Chinese Communist Party. He is now a tarnished official and has been found guilty on charges of corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power.

He might soon begin a lengthy sentence in the same Soviet-style prison where his father, Bo Yibo, served time during China's tumultuous Cultural Revolution.

Qincheng prison was built on the northern hills of Beijing in 1958. Using Soviet funding, the prison was originally constructed to house Chinese nationalists who ran afoul of Mao's communist conquerors.

Today, Qincheng remains China's only "luxury" prison, housing political prisoners who are treated like ordinary inmates, and high-ranking party officials, who enjoy a series of perks.

Qincheng's elite prisoners can watch television between 14:00 and 21:00 and can walk the prison grounds alone up to six times per week, according to a recent article in the Beijing News, a reputable daily newspaper.

Instead of wearing the prison's usual black uniforms, former officials are permitted to wear clothing provided by their families, the newspaper added.

Prisoners at Bo Xilai's level enjoy better meals too. Unlike regular inmates, elites can drink milk at breakfast. Lunch and dinner consist of two Chinese dishes and a bowl of soup, sometimes prepared by a chef from a Beijing hotel. After each meal, each high-ranking prisoner receives an apple.

image captionMr Bo was tried in Jinan, Shandong province last August

Much of the information on Qincheng is second-hand. The Chinese authorities are reluctant to provide concrete information on where convicted criminals are sent and photos of Qincheng are difficult to acquire.

It is not even certain that Bo will go to Qincheng. Some analysts floated the possibility that the situation around him is so politically sensitive, he might serve time in a facility built just for him.

However, most of the people interviewed by the BBC believe Bo will follow in the footsteps of other fallen officials by heading to Qincheng.

"The possibility that Bo Xilai will be sent somewhere other than Qincheng is almost zero," predicts high-profile Beijing lawyer, Mo Shaoping. "All ministry-level officials and higher go there."

The lengthy list of former inmates includes Mao Zedong's feisty widow, Jiang Qing, who served a decade there before she was released on medical grounds in 1991, months before committing suicide.

Bo Xilai's own father, Bo Yibo, was jailed in Qincheng after he was declared to be a "counter-revolutionary". According to the New York-based group, Human Rights in China, several Tiananmen-era protesters are still serving life sentences in Qincheng.

"The conditions are much better than a normal prison," Mr Mo adds, explaining that inmates have access to showers and baths, libraries and television.

China's current leaders have personal reasons for wanting to perpetuate this. Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, explains: "How Bo is treated at the trial and after his conviction is the precedent that it will establish as to how other eventual princelings might be treated in the future. This is something that every princeling has an interest in, irrespective of their feelings towards Bo Xilai himself."

"Formerly high-ranking party members are generally treated better than ordinary inmates, especially in relation to detention conditions [private cell] healthcare, visits, exemptions from certain prison rules etc. As long as the arrangements are approved 'upstairs' the prison will oblige.

"As with all the other aspects related to Bo's case, the standard rules and procedures won't apply. Even disgraced, Bo is still part of the party's 'family' because of his father."

'Scary and depressing'

Qincheng's ordinary prisoners did not find their accommodations very comfortable.

Tiananmen Square demonstration organiser Wang Dan stayed in Qincheng for 19 months starting in 1989. In his memoirs, he described the prison's atmosphere as "scary and depressing".

"The food was awful," he remembered. "Three times a day, we were served corn buns with some cucumbers, potatoes and eggplants. Without any meat and no oil in the vegetables, the buns were not filling or nourishing. I craved bigger portions."

Even though the guards took pains to prevent Wang from interacting or even spotting other Tiananmen student leaders, he had brief interactions with them.

"Knowing that I was surrounded by friends, I no longer felt lonely. In the end, I simply treated Qincheng as a university, where I learned my lessons in life. With my friends living in 'dorms' nearby, the scary and depressing prison became more habitable."

Bo is more likely to face enemies than friends in prison. According to Hong Kong media reports, Bo's former right-hand man, Wang Lijun, is serving his sentence in Qincheng prison.

Wang is thought to have ignited Bo Xilai's downfall when he fled to the US consulate to report Bo and his wife Gu Kailai's involvement in the murder of Neil Heywood. Once friends, Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun recently faced off at Bo's trial.

image captionSome of those arrested in Tiananmen Square in 1989 stayed in Qincheng

At least Bo probably would not have any awkward run-ins with his wife in Qincheng. Gu Kailai was convicted of the murder of British businessman, Neil Heywood, last year.

She is thought to be serving her sentence in Hebei province's Yancheng facility, described by China's Ministry of Justice as a "garden-style prison". Some inmates, a ministry report proudly explains, even write poetry when staying there.

Despite Qincheng prison's "luxury" label, Bo likely faces years of misery ahead.

Liu Zhijun, the former railways minister, is also serving at least a decade in Qincheng after he was convicted of accepting $9.4m (£5.9m) in bribes. According to China's Phoenix television, a miserable Liu seems to have learned his lesson: he recently warned his daughter to stay away from politics.

Even the prison's architects might agree. The director of Beijing's Public Security Bureau in the late 1950s, Feng Jiping oversaw the construction of Qincheng prison. Years later, he ended up there himself after he was declared to be a Communist Party "traitor".

"If I had known I would serve time there," he once said, "I would have made the prison nicer."