Murder Trial Puts Spotlight on China’s Political System

A tightly managed trial and a secretive seaside gathering tell us much about the ruling party's fears

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Gu Kailai, right, wife of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai, will be tried this week for the murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman, left

On Thursday the murder trial of the wife of a high-profile Chinese official and an aide is expected to begin in the eastern city of Hefei. More than 1,200 km to the north, the coastal resort town of Beidaihe is hosting the country’s top leadership, who are expected to discuss a once-in-a-decade leadership transition that will begin with the 18th Communist Party Congress this fall. On the surface, the events share little more than a sense of secrecy. The Beidaihe meeting has not been officially reported save for a few state press stories indicating that a few high-level officials including Vice President Xi Jinping, the man expected to become the country’s new leader, are in the resort town. The trial of Gu Kailai, wife of Bo Xilai, purged former boss of the southwestern city of Chongqing, is a tightly managed affair. Gu and aide Zhang Xiaojun are accused of murdering a U.K. citizen, Neil Heywood, who had worked with the Bo family. The British Foreign Office has told news services its diplomats will be allowed to view the trial. They will likely be the only observers outside of official media.

But the similarities between the Hefei trial and the Beidaihe meeting go beyond their secrecy. Ultimately, both events are focused on maintaining the power of China’s ruling Communist Party. And while their outcomes can be predicted — Gu and Zhang will be found guilty, and Xi will go on to be China’s next President — the details have yet to be fleshed out. Both events require extreme acts of balancing and the management of hopes and fears, factions and expectations, so that the political turmoil of the past year doesn’t cause further instability or risk to China’s ruling party.

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“This year has been quite extraordinary for China. Everybody is geared up for the leadership transition, then you have this bomb — the Bo Xilai case,” says Huang Jing, a political-science professor at the National University of Singapore. “It fully exposed the so-called life-and-death struggle of the top leaders, and more importantly the vulnerability of the system.” The purge of Bo, a charismatic politician who built up a base of public support in Chongqing through an aggressive crackdown on organized crime and a campaign to restore Mao-era “red culture,” triggered a crisis for the party, says Huang. “It exposed that system does not work anymore, that top leaders cannot resolve their differences, there’s simply no mechanism there and it exposed that the party system cannot manage its own cadres,” Huang says. “This kind of crisis is a wake-up call. They need to go to Beidaihe to really consolidate their decisions, to make sure they stop the bleeding. It’s a form of damage control.”

Beidaihe, which sits northeast of Beijing on the coast of the Bohai Sea, became popular under Mao as a destination for Chinese leaders looking to escape the capital’s summer heat. Hu Jintao canceled the summer conclaves there out of concern they fostered an image of elitism. But in recent years, they have returned. Such is the secrecy that scholars frequently disagree on the nature of the meetings, and only afterward is it publicly confirmed which leaders attended. Had things worked out differently, Bo might have joined this year’s Beidaihe gathering. He certainly would have been discussed in different terms at least. As a member of the Politburo, he was seen as hoping for elevation to its nine-member Standing Committee, China’s top governing body. In Chongqing he cultivated broad grassroots support even as his antigang campaign trampled basic legal protections. But on Feb. 6, a key deputy, former Chongqing police boss Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu. He stayed there overnight, and while the U.S. has not revealed details of that visit, Wang is suspected of revealing information about Heywood’s killing. When he emerged from the consulate, he was detained by state security officers and flown to Beijing. He hasn’t been seen since.

(MORE: Murder, Lies, Abuse of Power and Other Crimes of the Chinese Century)

Heywood, who died in November at the age of 41, was initially believed to have succumbed to heart failure as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. He had first become acquainted with Bo when he was the party secretary of the northeastern port city of Dalian. Bo and Gu’s son, Bo Guagua, went on to study at Harrow, the English boarding school Heywood also attended. The state-run Xinhua News Service said Gu had a dispute with Heywood over “economic interests” and that she and Zhang poisoned him because she was worried about Heywood posing a “threat to her son’s personal security.”

Domestic coverage of the case has been limited, but official outlets have tried to portray the trial as a victory for the rule of law, showing that no one is untouchable. “We believe the court can live up to the expectations of the public and deliver a fair trial,” wrote the Global Times, a newspaper owned by the Communist Party. “This is a criminal case, and society should see it as one.” But other official coverage couldn’t help but hint that the outcome is already decided. In announcing the murder charges, Xinhua wrote, “The facts of the two defendants’ crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial.”

Outside legal experts have criticized the lack of openness of the trial and say Gu and Zhang will almost certainly be found guilty. “I think the outcome is going to be conviction,” says New York University law professor Jerome Cohen. “The only doubt is going to be sentencing.” Some observers have suggested that Gu may be given a suspended death sentence, allowing her to escape execution. The fear of a threat to her son could come into play, says Cohen. “They have given a hint with this motive of protecting her son. That might be considered a mitigating circumstance,” Cohen says. Bo Guagua, who is believed to have remained in the U.S. after graduating in May from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told CNN that he submitted a witness statement to his mother’s attorneys, though he didn’t reveal the details. “I have faith that facts will speak for themselves,” the 24-year-old Bo told the network.

(MORE: The Bo Xilai Rumor Mill: Is There a Method Behind the Wild Speculation?)

Although allegations of widespread corruption by Bo and Gu have swirled since he was removed from his posts in March, Gu was not charged with any corruption-related offenses. A Bloomberg investigation found Gu’s sisters control an economic empire worth at least $126 million. Xinhua’s mention of “economic interests” is the closest the official news service came to touching on that subject. Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent defense attorney in Beijing, says that may mean that Bo could escape corruption charges when he is eventually prosecuted. “They only charged her with intentional homicide, not corruption. The result of this, I don’t mean it’s their intention, but the result will be that Bo’s possible corruption will be ignored,” says Pu. “It’s possible that they will treat Bo’s case as a political case. They will say Bo violated discipline instead of charging him with an economic crime.”

The danger is that the public could be angered if Bo is handed a relatively light sentence, says Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution. It could remind people of the Gang of Four trial in 1980–81, when Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and three other defendants were prosecuted for the violent excesses of the Cultural Revolution, although Mao, who died in 1976, was the architect of that upheaval. “There are two sensitive issues. One is gender and the other is class,” says Li. “If Gu Kailai is given the death penalty or life imprisonment but Bo Xilai is given a lesser sentence, people may say Gu Kailai is a scapegoat. This will remind people of Jiang Qing. The other issue is Zhang Xiaojun, the servant. If he is sentenced to death and Gu Kailai gets a lesser sentence, people will say, What’s going on?”

The focus on the personal aspects of the case helps the leadership divert attention from the implications for the system as a whole, says Huang. “They will try to lead the focus on the criminal case committed by some individuals,” he says. “Of course it’s a violation of the law in any country to murder someone, but they are trying to brush aside the political implications. They are trying to highlight criminal side so they won’t expose the corruption case, because that’s a Pandora’s box.” And while the trial will be closely managed, this year has shown that for all its close management by the party, the Chinese political system can produce surprises. That’s why the leadership will be in Beidaihe during the trial, says Huang. They will not only discuss the political transition, but be prepared to respond if the Hefei trial triggers unexpected events. “You don’t know what situation could pop up. That’s why you gather all the top leaders in Beidaihe to watch the trial closely,” he says. “If something happens, they can make the decision right there.” Gu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun are the ones on trial, but as the Chinese leadership meets on the balmy shores of Beidaihe, it’s facing close scrutiny as well.

— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing

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