SCANDAL

04.12.12

China’s Jackie Kennedy: Gu Kailai and the Bo Xilai’s Scandal

Does China really have its own Lady Macbeth? As a murder scandal rocks the ruling party, Melinda Liu on how the Gu Kailai, the Politburo’s desperate housewife, became a suspect.

Beautiful, brainy, and bossy—on the surface, Gu Kailai was a new breed of Politburo wife. A successful lawyer and daughter of a communist general, Gu met Bo Xilai when both were at Beijing University, one of the country’s most prestigious educational institutions. Bo and Gu were charismatic and ambitious “princelings”, or children of revolutionary veterans. They married in the mid-‘80s, becoming the life of the Communist Party—and Bo one of its rising stars. (“He reminded me of my father ... extremely idealistic,” Gu recalled to state media.) As recently as two months ago, Bo was party chief of Chongqing, a member of the 25-member Politburo, and an eager contender for further promotion during a once-in-a-generation power transition later this year.

Gu, 53, was well-traveled, English-speaking and self-promoting—not just for herself and hubby but also for their high-living son Bo Guagua, an uber-princeling whose parents got him into Harrow, Oxford, and most recently Harvard. Her killer combination of looks, pedigree, and education earned Gu a nickname as the “Jackie Kennedy of China.” For herself, Gu chose the English name Horus L. Kai, after the ancient Egyptian god of war, sun, and sky, symbolized as a falcon.

But Gu’s ambitions plummeted fatally to earth when she was officially named a murder suspect on April 10. A bombshell revelation into an already sensation political scandal, Gu is “highly suspected” in the death of an Englishman found lifeless in a Chongqing hotel Nov. 15, 2011.

Officially, Neil Heywood’s cause of death was listed as excessive drinking. Now, official media confirm that Gu and a household orderly named Zhang Xiaojun have been arrested on suspicion of Heywood’s “intentional homicide,” and that the 41-year-old Briton had been on good terms with Gu and Guagua before developing “a conflict over economic interests.” The news was eagerly devoured by Chinese microbloggers—“Now China has its own Lady MacBeth!” claimed one—until government censors banned messages containing the names (and even nicknames) of Bo family members, Heywood’s name, and even “Chongqing,” where Bo had been party secretary before his purge. In Western terms “that would be like banning American Netizens from tweeting about Chicago,” marveled one foreign diplomat who requested anonymity.

The official announcement confirmed what China's hyperactive rumor mill had whispered about for weeks: Heywood—who  had functioned as a sort of Western fixer” or factotum for the Bo family—experienced a falling out with members of the Bo household despite having played a role in getting Guagua into Harrow and Oxford. (Even more lurid rumors purport that Gu and Heywood had been lovers; these remain unconfirmed and neither Gu, Bo, nor Guagua were available to comment.) 

Also, on April 10 Bo himself was suspended from his Politburo post on suspicion of “serious violations of discipline.” He isn’t a homicide suspect—at least not yet. Party sources tell Newsweek and The Daily Beast that Bo’s been criticized in key party documents for failing to supervise his family members and his underlings at work.

Bo’s own fall from grace was triggered Feb. 6, when his former police chief Wang Lijun tried to seek political asylum in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, maintaining that he’d had a blow-up with Bo and feared for his life.  Wang—a mafia-buster known as “China’s Eliot Ness”—spent more than a day in the consulate before walking out into the waiting arms of Chinese security personnel. While inside he had revealed “detailed evidence” of wrongdoing in the Bo household and claimed that Gu had plotted to poison Heywood, informed sources said. The Wall Street Journel reported that Heywood was fearful after being summoned to Chongqing in November—and that before his death he'd left documents detailing Bo family investments overseas with a U.K. lawyer as an "insurance policy." If so, such documents could have proven that Bo and Gu lived beyond their apparent means, since government salaries are minuscule.

If not for Wang’s betrayal of his one-time mentor, Bo and Gu might have been able to maintain their image of a Chinese Camelot, at least for a time.  In a country where Politburo wives and even First Ladies normally have remained invisible, Gu set up her own trailblazing law firm in Beijing in 1995 and wrote a 1998 book titled “Winning a Lawsuit in the U.S.” about a landmark case in which she  helped several firms in Dalian, where Bo became mayor in 1993, win a U.S. legal battle. ("Courage is more important than wisdom," she wrote in the book, likening the court case to "a process of struggle and striving for victory... You can’t even think about losing.”)

But even as he made a name as one of China’s first modern politicians, Bo became more and more consumed with his career; he became Commerce Minister in 2004 and Chongqing party secretary three years later. There Bo promoted himself by championing the sayings of Mao Zedong and cracking down on organized crime—a two-fisted campaign to “sing red and attack black,” as Chinese put it. There’s little public record of what Gu did during this period, though she reportedly sought treatment for depression and Heywood told a friend she became increasingly “neurotic” after being investigated for corruption in 2007, asking him to divorce his Dalian-born Chinese wife, a request Heywood refused, according to the Wall Street Journal which first broke the story of the Bo-Heywood link. 

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China's Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai attends the closing session of the National Peoples Congress (NPC) at The Great Hall Of The People on March 14, 2012 in Beijing, China. (Lintao Zhang / Getty Images)

In his last press conference before being purged in March, Bo defended his wife and son. “A few people have been pouring filth on Chongqing and me and my family," he said, calling “sheer rubbish” published reports that Guagua had been seen driving a red Ferrari and was schooled overseas (though the son had been and was).

As for Gu, Bo claimed she relinquished her legal career more than a decade ago and “now basically just stays at home, doing some housework for me. I'm really touched by her sacrifice." Now Gu’s a perp and, while badly tarnished, Bo may emerge looking less evil than his spouse. Even as the charismatic Bo took a page from the Maoist playbook to enhance his image, now his wife seems poised to share a fate similar to that of Mao’s widow and one-time grade-B actress Jiang Qing, who was blamed for the horrors of the 1966-1976 cultural revolution in which millions of Chinese were killed, tortured, persecuted, and purged. When Jiang and other members of a radical “gang of four” went on trial in 1981, she defiantly claimed everything she did was at Mao’s behest: “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite.” A stunned and tantalized Chinese public is now eagerly awaiting Gu Kailai's day in court.