BEIJING -- The outcome of Bao Tong's brief, closed-door trial here yesterday -- a stiff jail sentence for his role in the Tiananmen Square protests -- was virtually certain.
Still uncertain, however, is whether his sentencing is the first part of a Communist Party deal allowing Mr. Bao's longtime boss, former party chief Zhao Ziyang, to escape further punishment for the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations.
The delicacy of the political debate within the party over who should shoulder formal blame for the mass protests is evidenced by the three years it took to bring Mr. Bao to trial, after his arrest and imprisonment in late May 1989.
But it only took a few hours yesterday to try and sentence him at the Beijing Intermediate People's Court -- suggesting that the whole affair was completely scripted in advance, as has often been the case with political trials here.
Mr. Bao, 59, the highest-ranking Chinese official to face charges as a result of the protests, received a sentence of four years on the charge of leaking state secrets and five years on the charge of "counterrevolutionary incitement."
He will have to serve four more years in jail, as the two terms were merged into a single sentence of seven years and he's to get credit for the three years he already has been imprisoned, court officials told Western reporters.
Mr. Zhao, though under virtual house arrest since the brutal military crackdown on the protests, apparently retains too much backing within the party to be put on trial.
Moreover, trying the party's former leader and the former protege of Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping might also prove too damaging to the party's already thin reputation in China.
Whether Mr. Bao, a former member of the party central committee and chief aide to Mr. Zhao, is taking the fall for the deposed party leader may not be known until later this year when the Communist Party is expected to issue an official verdict on Mr. Zhao's handling of the Tiananmen turmoil.
The political speculation is that Mr. Bao's seven-year jail sentence could be followed by a mild censure of Mr. Zhao, even though his advocacy of moderate political reforms is considered by many party elders to have led to the protests.
Such a deal could perhaps pave the way for the return to power of some former followers of Mr. Zhao and for a critical party congress this fall to adopt some of the relatively liberal economic policies associated with Mr. Zhao's tenure from 1987 to 1989. It is unlikely that Mr. Zhao himself could stage a comeback.
Even if this deal comes to pass, Mr. Bao's sentencing underscores that meaningful political reforms are not on the agenda of Mr. Deng's coalition of leaders who have firmly retained power in China -- despite being dogged by the lingering ghosts of the hundreds of protesters slain by the Chinese army in 1989.
Yesterday's trial was held in secret, despite requests by the United States and other foreign governments that independent observers be allowed to witness it. Security was tight, with plainclothes agents ringing the courthouse and ordering foreign reporters to keep away.
Mr. Bao's wife, Jiang Zongcao, and daughter, Bao Jian, stood across the street from the courthouse for several hours, until they were allowed to attend his 10-minute sentencing.
"He looked firm and calm. He also looked confident," Ms. Jiang told the Associated Press afterward. Another man, who identified himself as Mr. Bao's brother, proclaimed: "He was innocent."
Under Chinese law, Mr. Bao can appeal his sentence, but such appeals are seldom won here.
The charges on which he was found guilty involve allegations that he told Tiananmen protest leaders in advance about party plans to declare martial law in Beijing and about the routes that the army was to use to enter Beijing to break up the protests.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators were detained without trials after the crackdown on protests in Beijing and other major Chinese cities. At least a thousand of them are believed to still be in prisons or labor camps.
In a flurry of closed-door proceedings in early 1991, several dozen leading dissidents were tried and sentenced for their roles in the protests.
Two intellectuals, Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming -- identified by the Chinese government as "the black hands" behind the demonstrations -- received the longest sentences, 13 years in jail.
Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives voted yesterday to deny China most-favored-nation trading status. The bill, which passed 258-135, faces the threat of a presidential veto.
President Bush says continued contact is the best way of changing Chinese policy and encouraging improvement in its human rights record. But opponents in Congress cite the 1989 crackdown as clear evidence of Beijing's abusive human rights record.