China’s unveiling of murder charges against the wife of ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai signals the Communist Party is trying to move beyond the scandal before a once-in-a-decade leadership handover later this year.
Gu Kailai, once a well-known lawyer, was charged with “intentional homicide” in the poisoning of British businessman Neil Heywood, the official Xinhua News Agency said yesterday, without giving a date for a trial. Bo was removed as Chongqing party secretary in March and suspended from the Politburo in April on allegations of violating party discipline.
The challenge for China’s leaders will be to ensure they don’t all emerge tainted by Bo’s ouster, which marks the most serious leadership upheaval since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. They have tried to present the case as an isolated incident as they try to bolster their legitimacy ahead of the 18th Communist Party Congress when the country’s new leaders will be revealed.
“If they can somehow find evidence against Bo Xilai and have him dealt with before the 18th party congress, his supporters will be silenced,” said Bo Zhiyue, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, who is not related to Bo Xilai. “You will settle all these things down and people will say ‘Just forget about Bo Xilai and lets move on to the next stage.’”
Gu’s alleged involvement in Heywood’s death was exposed after Bo’s former police chief in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, went to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu in February bearing evidence she and Zhang had Heywood killed, according to U.S. officials briefed on the matter. Chinese investigators had initially told U.K. authorities that Heywood died of alcohol poisoning.
“The facts are clear and the evidence is firm and adequate,” Xinhua said yesterday. Gu, 53, and her son had a financial conflict with Heywood, which led her to believe he was a threat to her son’s safety, Xinhua said. An orderly in the family home, Zhang Xiaojun, was also charged, the report said.
China’s leaders need to convince the public that the incident isn’t a symptom of deeper problems within the system, said June Teufel Dreyer, a professor of political science at the University of Miami who focuses on China.
One way the party may seek to do that in the coming weeks and months, Dreyer said, is to demonize Gu, portraying her as evil, extravagant and adulterous. Gu may get a death sentence that will be suspended indefinitely, she said.
“Now you have a really cynical and alienated population,” Dreyer said in a telephone interview. In China “it plays into a larger sense of malaise -- our leaders are not looking out for us.”
That disillusionment was on display recently when leaders faced public criticism after Beijing officials claimed only 37 people were killed in floods from heavy rainstorms last weekend, and later raised the toll to 77. Chinese Internet users also questioned the official death toll from a mall fire in Tianjin, and criticized administrators over a woman who was forced to abort her seven-month fetus in June.
The state-run Global Times newspaper, which said earlier this month that the government faces a credibility crisis, published an editorial today saying courts are under more scrutiny and legal departments should release more information to satisfy the public’s demand.
“A trial held according to the law will strengthen the Chinese people’s confidence in the country’s legal system,” the editorial said. “This is a criminal case, and society should see it as one.”
Bo hasn’t been seen in public since the National People’s Congress in March. Prosecutors interrogated Gu and Zhang, and “heard the opinions of the defense team,” Xinhua said.
The indictment is a sign that the country’s leadership has reached a consensus about Bo’s fate at summertime meetings in the beach-side resort of Beidaihe and that Bo will “very soon” be charged as well, said Huang Jing, a professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.
Huang said the details in Gu’s indictment suggest the charges against Bo may be very narrow, focused on attempts to obstruct justice to protect his wife. That will keep the focus away from broader corruption charges that could stain other leaders, Huang said in a telephone interview from Chengdu, Sichuan province.
Cheng Li, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in a telephone interview that Gu’s indictment signals that Bo will probably be kicked out of the Communist Party in the coming days or weeks.
Gu is the youngest of five daughters of a People’s Liberation Army general, according to a Chinese-language website affiliated with the Communist Youth League. She rose from a butcher’s assistant during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution to become a lawyer who won a lawsuit in the U.S. and went on to write a book about the experience.
Bo’s family has become an embodiment of the political influence and wealth that can accrue to relatives of China’s top leaders. Bo is a so-called princeling because his father, Bo Yibo, was one of the founding revolutionary leaders of the People’s Republic. Gu’s sisters controlled a web of businesses from Beijing to Hong Kong to the Caribbean worth at least $126 million, regulatory and corporate filings show.
Bo Guagua, Gu and Bo’s son, fueled further speculation about the family’s wealth for attending Britain’s elite Harrow School and Oxford University, and then Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Seeking to dispel claims that he lived an extravagant lifestyle, Bo Guagua sent a letter to Harvard’s Crimson newspaper in April saying that his education was funded partly by his mother’s “generosity from the savings she earned from her years as a successful lawyer and writer.”
Speaking at a briefing at the National Party Congress in March, Bo said his wife had quit her law practice and mostly did housework. “I am very moved of her sacrifice,” Bo said.