China Trial Signals Ousted Leader Bo’s Future on Hold

Bo Xilai
Bo Xilai, then Chinese Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, at the closing ceremony of China's National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 14, 2012. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

China’s handling of the murder trial of the wife of Bo Xilai signals the ruling Communist Party wants to isolate her crime from the alleged misdeeds of the ousted Politburo member before deciding on his punishment.

There was no mention of Bo in the official account of the Aug. 9 trial in which the state-run Xinhua News Agency said his wife, Gu Kailai, confessed to poisoning British businessman Neil Heywood. Xinhua recounted her fear that Heywood had threatened her son, highlighting her mental anguish and remorse for causing “great losses” to the party and the country.

“The leadership will watch for the reaction to the trial and verdict before coming to a final decision about what to do with Bo,” said Ding Xueliang, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who teaches contemporary Chinese politics. “His survival isn’t completely destroyed and he’s still in the last stage of the fight to keep some kind of position and status.”

Gu’s trial was the latest episode in a scandal that saw Bo’s ouster as Chongqing party chief in March and triggered the most serious political upheaval since 1989. The party is gearing up for this year’s once-in-a-decade leadership change, and seeking to limit the impact from a case that threatens to shine a light on cronyism and corruption at the center of power.

The court was told that Gu and her son had conflicts with Heywood over “economic interests,” Xinhua said in a report released late on Aug. 10. Gu testified she asked Heywood to serve “as a proxy to a company and participate in the planning of a land project, which never got started,” and the two sides later got into a dispute over payment and other issues, according to the Xinhua report of the court proceedings that it said lasted about seven hours.

Threat to Son

As the conflict escalated, Gu believed he had threatened the personal safety of her son and decided to kill the Briton, Xinhua said. She admitted to dripping cyanide into Heywood’s mouth as he lay drunk on his bed, Xinhua wrote.

Xinhua’s report of Gu’s trial was carried in the People’s Daily, the Party’s mouthpiece, and in official newspapers including the Economic Daily and the Beijing Youth Daily.

“So far, the court proceedings, the Xinhua report, the public announcements, do not answer some of the key points that are so crucial to understanding the motives and dynamics of the murder,” Ding said. “There was no mention of Bo Xilai, which is really the core part of the whole case. There was no mention of the corruption that’s been reported in the media.”

‘What a Nightmare’

The court heard Gu had been treated for chronic insomnia, anxiety and depression with drugs including anti-psychotics, anxiolytics, antidepressants and sedative hypnotic drugs, Xinhua said, citing an assessment by forensic psychiatrists.

“This case has been like a huge stone weighing on me for more than half a year,” Xinhua cited Gu as saying at the end of the trial. “What a nightmare.”

The trial of Gu, 53, took place in Hefei more than 1,000 kilometers (622 miles) from the murder in Chongqing, China’s biggest municipality, which Bo led for more than four years until his downfall. An orderly in her house, Zhang Xiaojun, confessed to aiding Gu, Xinhua said.

The verdicts on Gu and Zhang will be announced at a later date, Tang Yigan, vice president of the Hefei Intermediate People’s Court, told reporters on Aug. 9.

“This has been a well-planned and well-executed case and done according to script,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong. “We’ve had laid before us all the excuses, that Gu was under psychological stress, she was an anxious mother, protective of her son and she was cooperative with authorities. So it’s laying the groundwork for a more lenient sentence.”

‘Great Losses’

Gu said she accepted the facts in her indictment, according to Xinhua. “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,” Xinhua quoted her as saying.

Gu probably won’t be executed, according to Randy Peerenboom, a law professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Most likely she will be given the death penalty with a two-year reprieve which will then be commuted to life in prison, he said.

“It would appear that a deal has been worked out where Gu Kailai takes the blame and seeks leniency for her aide, as well as leniency for herself,” he said.

Bo, 63, was stripped of his post after his former police chief fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February with evidence implicating Gu in Heywood’s murder, according to U.S. officials briefed on the matter. Chinese investigators initially told U.K. authorities that Heywood died in November of alcohol poisoning.

Political Influence

Since the scandal erupted, Bo’s family has become an embodiment of the political influence and wealth that has been accumulated by some relatives of China’s top leaders. 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.

Delegates from the Communist Party, which has more than 82 million members, will meet later this year in Beijing for the 18th Congress to select new leaders who will govern China for the next decade. Bo was a possible candidate for the Central Committee, the highest ruling body, until his ouster.

For the wife of a Politburo member to be tried for murdering a foreigner is unparalleled in Chinese history, said Minxin Pei, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. Only the prosecution of Jiang Qing, Gang of Four leader and the last wife of former leader Mao Zedong, has any similarities, he said.

‘Done Deal’

Gu is the youngest of five daughters of a People’s Liberation Army general. She rose from a butcher’s assistant during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution to become an attorney who won a lawsuit in the U.S. and went on to write a book about the experience.

The verdict will probably be announced in the next one or two weeks, said Peerenboom.

“It’s more or less a done deal so what’s the advantage of waiting,” he said. “The Party clearly wanted to separate this case from whatever they want to do with Bo Xilai so they wanted to deal with it before the fall.”