High-profile murder trial in China closes amid intrigue
The wife of the once rising political star Bo Xilai did not refute charges of murdering a British businessman Thursday during a highly sensitive trial in China. But many doubt justice will be served.
The wife of the once rising Chinese politician Bo Xilai did not refute charges that she murdered a British businessman court officials said Thursday, as a high-profile trial that has rocked Chinese politics came to a close.
The trial in the eastern city of Hefei, which was veiled in secrecy and soaked in political intrigue, ended after just one day.
While Chinese prosecutors argued that Gu Kailai killed 41-year-old Briton Neil Heywood in November 2011 in order to protect the couple’s son, many see the trial as part of a conspiracy to tarnish and sideline Bo.
Bo was kicked out of the Communist party’s Politburo in April after Gu was detained as a suspect in the murder. A populist leader who rose to prominence as the Communist Party’s top man in the southwest city of Chongqing, Bo did not mask his intention to secure a spot in the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee.
The naming of the new Standing Committee, a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, is currently underway.
According to Rod Wye, an Associate Fellow with the Asia Program at Chatham House think tank, Bo and Gu faced rivalries that are normal to politics in China and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Bo’s maverick approach to politics brought him many enemies.
“He ran Chongqing in a very populist fashion and led a very high-profile campaign against criminal activity. He was from a different mold; not at all the grey consensus maker typical of Chinese officials,” Wye noted, adding that Bo’s success was based on his own “popular appeal” rather than to the “party’s mechanisms”.
Supporters beaten and detained
Gu and family aide Zhang Xiaojun face the death penalty for poisoning Heywood, a former family friend and Gu’s business associate. Initial news reports by Chinese state media cited a financial dispute between Gu and Heywood as the likely motive for the murder.
But the official indictment against Gu said she had likely been driven to murder Heywood after he made unspecified threats against her son – a graduate student at Harvard University. That may count as a mitigating circumstance, and help Gu avoid execution.
Bo’s supporters have condemned the trial as a sham and a stepping stone to also indict the former politician. “The party and the public are very divided over the trial… it’s a very dramatic moment,” said FRANCE 24 correspondent Shannon Van Sant by phone from Hefei.
“This morning outside the courtroom there were several protesters who were voicing their support for Bo and his wife, claiming [Bo and Gu] were an answer to the corruption they witnessed among Chinese government officials,” Van Sant noted. “They felt like Bo and Gu represented a new hope. Those protesters were subsequently beaten and taken away by police. I think the whole country is nervous about this.”
Gu was denied the use of a family lawyer and instead was defended by two state-appointed lawyers. The trial was conducted behind closed doors, with journalists barred from entering. Coverage of the proceedings came only from state media, which previously reported that evidence against Gu and her co-accused was “irrefutable”.
However, two British diplomats were invited to attend because of the nationality of the victim.
Court officials said a verdict against Gu would come at a later date.
The mysterious wife
Bo and Gu’s rise to China’s most influential circles and their spectacular and sudden fall have brought huge attention to the trial, both in and outside the country. International media have even dubbed the couple the Chinese Kennedy’s.
Special attention has been focused on Gu, who was the daughter of a general, but later became an accomplished international lawyer and a best-selling author.
Profiles of Gu in The New York Times and other news outlets also describe her as a shrewd entrepreneur and a ultra-devoted mother who was ready to sacrifice everything for her son’s education.
Reports of questionable business dealings and financial transactions - with Heywood and others - have added weight to the allegations that she was peddling influence in China for personal profit, and seem to support the theory that she eliminated Heywood to protect herself or her family.
For Chatham Houses’ Wye, the world will probably never know if Gu was behind Heywood’s death or if she herself was the victim of her husband’s political opponents. “I think the trial is the end of the story rather than the beginning. The trial is meant to draw a line under the issue,” he said.