Trial of the Century

China’s Jackie O, Gu Kailai, Faces Quick Justice in ‘Trial of the Century’

The trial of the wife of disgraced Communist Party honcho Bo Xilai in the killing of British businessman Neil Heywood begins—and could well end—on Thursday. Melinda Liu reports from Beijing.


Gu Kailai knows only too well that in her upcoming trial, justice (or at least sentencing) will probably will be swift.

Trained as a lawyer, Gu set up her own Beijing law firm in 1995, and helped several Chinese firms win a trailblazing legal battle in the U.S. Buoyed by her legal victory, in 1998 Gu wrote a Chinese-language book, titled Winning a Lawsuit in the U.S. In it, she praised the Chinese legal system—including the speed with which mainland courts completed death-penalty cases, in contrast to more protracted U.S. proceedings. In China “as long as it’s known that you, John Doe, killed someone, you will be arrested, tried and shot to death.” Gu wrote, approvingly.

On Thursday, Gu will be that Jane Doe. She’ll go on trial for allegedly killing Neil Heywood, a 41-year-old Briton who was an acquaintance of her family’s. Gu and her son, Bo Guagua, had been on friendly terms with Heywood until they developed a “conflict over economic interests,” as the official Xinhua news agency described it when Gu was arrested April 10. More recently, Xinhua has shifted subtly in tone. "Worrying about Neil Heywood's threat to her son's personal security, Bogu Kailai … poisoned Neil Heywood to death," it said, using Gu’s married name. The new wording suggests to some Pekingologists who scrutinize such nuances that Gu will be allowed to argue mitigating circumstances—and avoid being put to death—on the basis of a “tiger-mom-gone-wrong” defense.

Gu is the wife of former Chongqing party secretary and Politburo member Bo Xilai, who until his purge in early February was angling to become a member of the Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, the nine-man body that rules China. Bo’s high-flying career was cut short when his police chief, Wang Lijun fled to the American consulate in Chengdu and spent more than 30 hours inside, claiming Gu had poisoned Heywood and that Bo was out to silence him because he knew too much.

Told that he could not seek asylum in the U.S. in this manner, Wang left the consulate only after phoning people he trusted to escort him to the Chinese capital. By that time, security personnel dispatched by Bo had surrounded the consulate, Wang had made "eye-popping revelations" and the incident “felt like something out of a spy thriller,” U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke said. Wang has not been heard from since.

If she is found guilty, Gu—and a Bo family employee being tried with her—could face punishment that ranges from a lenient 15 years’ imprisonment to the death penalty, said attorney Wu Jianzhong, of the Dacheng law firm in Beijing. The verdict is virtually a foregone conclusion: Chinese courts average a 98 percent conviction rate. “They wouldn’t be put on trial if there wasn’t enough evidence [against them],” Wu said. The state-run Xinhua summed it up this way: Her "crime is clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial."

The trial is expected to be short—possibly less than a day. The Chinese public has shown intense interest in the scandal around Bo’s fall from grace, and about how the charges against Gu might reverberate during this autumn’s key leadership transition, when an unusually large number of top jobs are slated to change hands. (Bo had hoped to advance during this reshuffle.) Netizens called her “our own Lady MacBeth.” Celebrated as the “Jackie O of China because of her porcelain good looks and prestigious family background (her father was a Chinese general), Gu will have a day in court that will be China’s trial of the century—of a sort not seen since legal proceedings against the radical post-Mao “Gang of Four” some three decades ago.

And justice could be rough, predicts New York University law professor Jerome Cohen, a prominent expert on the Chinese criminal code who has been deeply involved in the case of China’s blind activist, Chen Guangcheng. Gu’s trial will take place in the Anhui province capital, Hefei; Heywood died in Chongqing. As in the West, removing the trial to a neutral city is common in China to avoid conflicts of interest. But the choice of Anhui province has raised eyebrows, because the Supreme People’s Court head spent much of his professional life in Anhui. “Some observers believe that Anhui courts are even more unsympathetic to the rights of criminal defendants and their lawyers than most other mainland courts,” Cohen wrote in a recent South China Morning Post op-ed, “Could it be that Wang Shengjun, the president of the Supreme People’s Court, who has deep roots in Anhui, seeks to maximise his influence in the case?”

Then there’s Gu’s defense counsel. Two local lawyers will represent her, but China legal beagles question whether they were chosen freely by the defendant. “Authorities often misrepresent the situation by telling the incommunicado accused that his or her family wants the lawyers selected by the authorities, and telling the family that the accused wants the local lawyers,” Cohen told The Daily Beast. He says Chen Guangcheng was in precisely this predicament before he was sentenced and sent to prison—and that local lawyers are never as independent as out-of-towners, who are less likely to have their licenses yanked. “Accused frequently try to bring in outside lawyers who are not under the thumb of the local judicial bureau” and party entities, he noted.

Still, the Chinese citizenry is not likely to sympathize much with Gu. “She herself is a lawyer and she knows how to defend herself and avoid being wronged,” declared Wu, the Beijing lawyer, “I think Gu will present reasons why her son was threatened [by Heywood] and her motivation for the killing.” The likelihood that Gu or her counsel will be allowed to explain her side of the story—or that her history of depression might lead to sentencing based on diminished responsibility—is expected to help her avoid capital punishment. Cohen said he believes “Gu is more likely to receive a death sentence subject to two-year reprieve of execution, a unique mainland punishment that is converted to a life sentence if the defendant does not intentionally commit an additional crime during the reprieve.”

Two British diplomats will be allowed to observe the trial (though foreign media have been told no more seats are available). Chinese netizens are expected to focus on the proceedings especially for clues as to Politburo member Bo’s fate. Since being purged Bo, 63, has been detained by party authorities for investigation of “serious disciplinary violations”—but no mention has been made of his whereabouts, or whether he’ll stand trial. “I hope Bo will be tried openly,” said lawyer Wu, “If he helped cover up the killing, he should be charged.”

But one central topic of speculation and gossip—alleged Bo family corruption—may not receive as thorough an airing as the murder charge. Even though Bo’s annual government salary was only about $20,000, he and his family were later found to have owned, through front companies, prestigious London real estate worth millions of pounds—a tale that’s a favorite subject for Beijing’s frenzied rumor mill.

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There may be a key reason that Gu would be allowed to explain her motivation, not in terms of money matters but as an über-Tiger Mom who went off the rails in defense of her cub. A trial conducted along these lines may succeed in sidestepping the central issue of corruption at the top of China’s ruling elite. Since Bo’s downfall, official censors have restricted media and netizen debate about how senior officials’ relatives have become rich and famous through nepotism and influence-peddling. This has sabotaged the media’s “supervisory” role in society, says Prof. Hu Xingdou of Beijing Technology University: "Even Chinese media dare not report the truth about corruption at present. It can only report cases that the central government has determined [already] ... this kind of supervision is just like beating a dead tiger."

Controversies surrounding hugely wealthy “princelings”—Chinese descended from prominent revolutionary figures—are not new. Bo Xilai himself addressed the issue of nepotism in 1993, at the annual Parliament session, by quoting part of an old Chinese aphorism: “When a man becomes an official, his children, dogs, cats, and even chickens fly up to heaven.”

Just as Gu’s own words augured her imminent murder trial, that old Chinese saying ultimately may be haunting Bo, who omitted the second half of the proverb. It states: “When he falls, they fall with him.”