Like a carefully crafted TV show, Gu Kailai’s trial was supposed to have a little something for everyone.
For those who wanted to see justice for murdered British businessman Neil Heywood, Gu was found guilty. But for those who still support Gu and her husband – ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai – there is the comfort that she will not be executed. For those that craved greater legal transparency, there was local press coverage (although only from Xinhua, which published a 3,300-word report). Yet for the more jaundiced observers, a host of unanswered questions remained.
And therein lies the problem. Like many decisions reached by committee – read that literally – Gu’s verdict pleases no one outright.
When, on Monday, the People’s Intermediate Court in the eastern city of Hefei, pronounced her guilty of murdering Heywood and handed down a suspended death sentence, China’s ruling elite was hoping to draw a line under Gu’s case, which has rocked the country’s political establishment to the core
Yet questions about the trial have continued to grow.
A common complaint was that Gu had got off lightly, because of her Party connections – her father was a revolutionary luminary – and that ordinary people always pay a higher price.
“Steal a whole kingdom and they make you a prince, steal a hook and they hang you from it,” read one oft-cited proverb posted online.
Many others said they smelt a rat. “This is a show,” wrote one. “It is wrong to play people for a monkey,” the microblogger added.
Those stoking conspiracy theories even queried if the real Ms Gu was standing trial. Previous photos of Gu were soon being circulated online in which she looked much more angular than the fuller-faced woman now standing compliantly in the dock.
Gu admitted she had killed Mr Heywood because she believed he posed a threat to the safety of her son, 24 year-old Bo Guagua. The three had entered into an ill-fated property deal, the court discovered, and after its collapse Heywood had pursued the family for £13 million of lost earnings.
The court was shown an email in which Heywood was purported to warn the young Bo of the damaging consequences if he did not pay up. Unofficial reports of the trial say the prosecution claimed the Englishman “kidnapped” Gu’s son while he was in the UK at some point last year.
“To me, that was more than a threat. It was real action that was taking place,” Xinhua quoted Gu as saying. “I felt I must fight to my death to stop the craziness of Neil Heywood,” she suggested.
So Gu, with the help of her aide Zhang Xiaojun, took matters into her own hands, luring Heywood to the city of Chongqing, where her husband Bo Xilai was Party chief.
Gu is then said to have drunk wine with Mr Heywood until he became inebriated (his friends say Hetwood never drank much alcohol). When he asked for water Gu reportedly gave him a cyanide solution.
Before leaving the hotel room she and Zhang scattered pills on the floor to make Heywood’s death look like a suicide.
Although the court conceded that Gu’s reasoning was impaired at the time of the murder – it noted she was dependent on sedative hypnotic drugs and had suffered from insomnia, depression and paranoia – it concluded that her attempt to cover up the crime proved that she understood the consequences of her actions and could be held criminally responsible.
But liberals and legal activists – not traditional allies of the Bo family – criticised the government for failing to adhere to basic legal principles. They said the case against Gu was based on confessions rather than cross-examination of witnesses. And given that this was the most high-profile murder case of the year in China – and possibly the decade – there was derision that the trial could be wrapped up in a mere seven hours.
“Witnesses who should have appeared in court – the most important of which were her husband and former police chief Wang Lijun – were utterly absent… This kind of trial is just a show to cover up the truth,” He Weifang, a professor of law at Peking University, wrote in a now censored blog.
Hu Shuli, editor-in-chief of Caixin Media, was similarly unconvinced: “The story spun about a mother sacrificing herself for her own son can hardly deceive anyone… Who else is involved? Is Bo among them?”
Bo – as several foreign newspapers have pointed out – was the ‘elephant in the room’ in Gu’s case, for both the Party and the public. He has not been seen or heard since he was accused of “serious disciplinary violations” in April and stripped of his senior Party posts.
Received wisdom was that Bo would be dealt with before the leadership transition in the autumn, but the failure to act suggests a lack of consensus on how best to proceed. It’s now thought the decision may be deferred till next year.
A further sub-plot in the scandal is Wang Lijun, Bo’s erstwhile police chief who is thought to have implicated Gu in Heywood’s death after fleeing to the US consulate in Chengdu in February.
Nothing has been heard of Wang either – although there is speculation that he will go on trial soon, now that four of his juniors have been found guilty of helping to cover up Gu’s actions.
But one explanation for Gu’s suspended death sentence is that she provided information to help incriminate her husband. It’s now thought that she could spend as little as nine years in prison, according to several experts on Chinese law. There’s also something of a precedent. The last senior female Party member to find herself in a similar predicament was Mao’s last wife Jiang Qing. She was found guilty of masterminding much of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, but still only spent 10 years behind bars.
Like Jiang Qing, Gu is likely to spend whatever jail time she is required to serve at Qincheng prison, a facility reserved for intellectuals and high-ranking Party officials outside Beijing. Inmates have their own room with a toilet and can request a table for writing, notes Shenzhen Economic Daily.
But one ignominy Gu will have to bear is the loss of her name. According to the UK’s Daily Telegraph prisoners are referred to by a four- digit number derived from the date of their incarceration. That might be hard for a woman once feted by the Wall Street Journal as the “Jackie Kennedy of China”.
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