To understand the significance of the Gu Kailai murder trial – concluded in a single day last week with the wife of fallen Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai eagerly confessing to killing British businessman Neil Heywood – it is necessary to put aside the smokescreen of the courtroom formalities and the elaborate melodrama surrounding Heywood’s death.
Gu’s trial actually had little to do with Gu except as an actor on the party’s ready-made stage; rather, it turned out to be a pre-written, one-act drama designed to distance Bo and the party from any blame in the case ahead of a key party congress this autumn that will determine the next generation of Chinese leaders.
In the end, Gu’s trial was about politics in China, not justice, and does little to encourage faith in either.
The sensational details of the murder revealed in the official press (not to mention the widespread speculation and unconfirmed reports in other media that Gu was having an affair with Heywood) have served to keep tongues wagging and minds distracted from the political purge for which the trial is a mere cover.
In all likelihood, if the ambitious Bo – who was brazenly angling for a seat on the all-powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee before being removed from his Chongqing fiefdom in March – had not alienated President Hu Jintao and other members of the ruling elite, then there would have been no trial for Gu, whether or not she is a murderess.
At the time of writing, Gu, 53 – daughter of Gu Jingsheng, a party elder and military leader – has not yet been sentenced. Given her cooperation with authorities, however, she is likely to be treated leniently. A suspended death sentence is expected.
Who knows what the facts really are in this case, but the script, as it played out in a courtroom in the city of Hefei in the eastern province of Anhui – about 1,300 kilometers from where the crime allegedly occurred in a Chongqing hotel room last
November 13 – has all the elements of the most histrionic of soap operas.
As reported by the official Xinhua News Agency, the only media outlet allowed to cover the trial, Gu feared that Heywood, 41, would harm her son, Bo Guagua, after the younger Bo refused to pay him nearly US$22 million over a business deal that had gone sour.
Heywood reportedly sent an e-mail to Bo Guagua, 24, who graduated this May from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and also holds a degree from Oxford University, threatening to “destroy” him if he did not pay up.
As the Xinhua account continues, Gu told the court that fearing for her son’s safety and suffering from depression and insomnia, she arranged a meeting with Heywood in his Chongqing hotel room, where she coaxed him to drink so much alcohol that he vomited, and then poured a mixture of rat poison and cyanide into his mouth.
According to Xinhua, Gu said she and long-time family servant Zhang Xiaojun, also on trial in the case, then scattered drugs around the room to make it appear that Heywood had died of alcohol abuse and a drug overdose.
At the time, Chongqing authorities declared that Heywood’s death was caused by a heart attack, and his body was quickly cremated without an autopsy.
“I suffered a mental breakdown after learning that my son was in jeopardy,” Gu is reported to have told the court. “The case has produced great losses to the party and the country, for which I ought to shoulder the responsibility, and I will never feel at ease. I am grateful for the humanitarian care shown to me by those who handled the case.
“I solemnly tell the court that in order to maintain the dignity of the law, I will accept and calmly face any sentence, and I also expect a fair and just court decision.”
Those, it seems, are the humble, conscience-stricken words of the most influential woman in Chongqing, a sprawling south-western municipality of 29 million people – a woman who was not just a beautiful flower on her powerful husband’s lapel but one who had also earned widespread respect and admiration as a high-flying lawyer and author with her own impressive stake in Chinese life.
Now, if we are to believe the script so dutifully acted out in Hefei last week, this once-proud powerhouse of a figure accepted court-appointed non-entities as her defence team and then prostrated herself before the prosecution, confessing to “intentional homicide” without a single legal objection while also thanking her jailers and expressing her absolute faith in the Chinese legal system.
Maybe this works as soap opera, but it simply doesn’t wash on any other level – especially when you consider that four senior Chongqing police officials have admitted to aiding and abetting Gu in the cover-up Heywood’s murder. It’s hard to believe these officers would be involved in such an extra-legal operation without Bo’s knowledge – and yet there was no mention of Bo during the seven-hour trial.
Also, according to prosecutors in the case, before deciding to murder Heywood, Gu had tried to persuade her husband’s right-hand man, Wang Lijun, then Chongqing’s vice-mayor and security chief, to frame Heywood on a drug-trafficking charge. Wang reportedly refused to take part in that plan but was then apprised of the subsequent murder plot.
Again, if his top lieutenant was so intimately involved in the case, it strains credulity to ask the public to believe that Bo was completely out of the loop.
After an apparent falling out with Bo, Wang was dismissed on February 2 from his post as head of public security and reassigned to a far less important environmental, education and science portfolio. Four days later, Wang paid a 24-hour visit to the US Consulate in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, in what many observers saw as an attempted defection.
Whatever Wang might have been offering in return for asylum, however, US authorities didn’t bite. Wang was seized by security agents shortly after leaving the consulate and has been incommunicado ever since.
Subsequently, in an internal party briefing, Hu denounced Wang as a “traitor” to the party and the nation.
Like Gu, Wang now waits in detention for the verdict on his fate.
Meanwhile, where is Bo and what is his status? No one knows.
The 63-year-old populist politician who tried to ride his anti-crime campaign and Maoist revival in Chongqing – not to mention his considerable personal charm and charisma – to a seat at China’s most powerful table has not been seen or heard from since he lost his post and was removed from the Politburo five months ago.
His future is in the hands of the party’s Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection, which has charged him with “serious disciplinary violations” – usually code for corruption.
But if the Gu trial is any indication, Bo too may be treated lightly by a ruling elite that does want to air too much dirty laundry before the party congress this autumn, at which seven of nine Standing Committee members are due to step down.
It was Bo’s naked ambition that stirred China’s political waters and then his spectacular fall that thoroughly roiled them. Add to that murder and intrigue involving his wife and top Chongqing police officials, and the Chinese leadership has on its hands the worst political scandal since the pro-democracy uprisings that led to the bloody crackdown on student activists in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
At this point, the leadership clearly wants to close the book on the drawn-out, unseemly Chongqing affair, minimize the damage done to the reputation of both the party and the country and move on to the next generation of leaders.
If you want truth and justice, look elsewhere. DM
Credit: This edited article is used courtesy of Asia Times Online, who retain copyright.
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