The suspended death sentence handed to Gu Kailai signals that the Communist Party wants to satisfy competing groups as it moves to determine the fate of her husband, deposed political leader Bo Xilai.
A court in the Chinese city of Hefei gave Gu the death penalty with a two-year reprieve yesterday for the murder of British businessmen Neil Heywood, a punishment that is commonly reduced to life imprisonment in China. Bo’s name wasn’t mentioned in state media reports about the trial or verdict.
“A suspended death sentence satisfies everybody,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. “For the public, the sentence shows the party is not soft on the powerful and the privileged. For Bo’s enemies, it is severe enough to imply that Bo’s own crime is also very serious. For Bo’s supporters, the sentence leaves open the real possibility of being commuted to life in prison.”
The scandal surrounding Heywood’s death brought down Bo, roiling China’s leadership ahead of a once-a-decade political transition later this year. The party has yet to detail its case against him, leaving an uncertain path for handling a populist who shot to prominence for an anti-crime campaign and pushing state-led investment to ease the country’s wealth gap.
Stories about the verdict were published on the front pages of state-run media including Beijing Youth Daily and Beijing News, while the People’s Daily put it on page four.
“Justice will be done no matter how privileged a suspect is,” the English-language Global Times said in an editorial. “Trying to cover it up will be highly risky.”
More than 100 people, including British diplomats, the defendants’ friends and people from “all walks of life” attended yesterday’s court hearing, Xinhua said. It said Gu had pleaded guilty to killing Heywood, gave authorities clues on crimes committed by others in the case, and told the court she would not appeal. According to Xinhua, Gu poisoned Heywood with cyanide after he became drunk and fell down in a hotel bathroom.
A family orderly, Zhang Xiaojun, was sentenced to nine years in prison and also said he won’t appeal the verdict, Xinhua said. In a separate trial, four police officers were convicted of destroying evidence in the case and were sentenced to between five and 11 years in prison, Xinhua said.
“I feel that the verdict is fair,” Gu told the court, according to footage broadcast on China Central Television. “It comprehensively reflects the court’s special respect for the law, reality and especially for life.”
Speaking at a briefing, Tang Yigan, vice president of the court in the city of Hefei where Gu was tried for killing Heywood, recounted Gu’s fear that Heywood had threatened her son, Bo Guagua, though he said there was no evidence that he was harmed.
The sentence indicates that Gu may eventually be released from prison, said Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University. “Occasions arise to commute the life sentence to a prison term, often 15 years, but it could be longer, it could be shorter -- they have discretion,” Cohen said
The party must now decide Bo’s fate. Previously a candidate to join the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s supreme decision-making body, he is under investigation by the party for “serious disciplinary violations.”
“The story that they put out doesn’t hang together, it’s a truncated story,” Cohen said, referring to the official version of the court proceedings. “It was designed to help the leadership because if they had exposed Bo Xilai that would have inevitably led to an exposure of a lot of other misconduct by other leaders.”
In a statement released yesterday, the British embassy in Beijing said the U.K. government “consistently made clear” that trials surrounding Heywood’s death should meet international human rights standards and the death penalty should not be applied.
The U.K. welcomes the fact that Chinese authorities investigated Heywood’s death and tried those identified as being responsible, the embassy said in the statement.
The case became public in February when Bo’s former police chief of Chongqing, Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu with evidence implicating Gu in Heywood’s murder, according to U.S. officials briefed on the matter. The resulting diplomatic uproar presaged Bo’s ouster as Chongqing party chief and his April suspension from the Politburo.
Xinhua reported two weeks before Gu’s trial, on July 26, that the facts of her crime “are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial.”
The Global Times, a state-run newspaper, said before the trial that the court proceedings would strengthen the Chinese people’s confidence in the legal system, showing that nobody is above the law regardless of their status or power.
China’s judiciary isn’t independent from the ruling party, with party officials and government bureaucrats sitting on political-legal committees supervising the work of the police, prosecutors and the courts.
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 hasn’t been seen in public since the National People’s Congress in Beijing in March, when he decried the country’s wealth gap at a media briefing. He won national attention for his “Strike Black” campaign against corruption and his focus on state-led investment.
He also reintroduced songs and slogans from the era of Chairman Mao Zedong to re-instill a socialist spirit. In 2009, millions of Chongqing residents got quotes from Mao’s Little Red Book sent to their mobile phones.
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.
Bo Guagua fueled further speculation about the family’s wealth by attending Britain’s elite Harrow School and Oxford University, and then Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.