The murder trial for Gu Kailai, wife of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, is reportedly set to begin Thursday in the Chinese city of Heifei. Gu is charged in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, who was found dead in a Chongqing hotel last November.
Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University and a China expert, says Chinese officials have indicated how the trial will unfold and that the outcome has been decided.
“Certainly in what they call ‘serious and complicated’ cases this is no secret that such cases are not decided by the hearing judge alone, but they’re decided by a committee inside the court in advance,” he said. “It’s not a trial in a western sense.”
“They have already said that she confessed to the crime of murder, that it was involving some economic disagreement, and that she said she did it to protect her son," said Nathan.
Nathan believes those are the kind of legally relevant points which suggest that she might get a sentence of life imprisonment or a death sentence with a two year reprieve.
The trial is closed to the public and foreign media, but two British officials have been given permission to observe the proceedings. Gu’s aide Zhang Xiaojun is also charged with Heywood’s murder.
Heywood met Bo and Gu during the 1990’s while Bo served as mayor of Dalian. He helped the couple’s son, Bo Guagua, gain admittance to his own alma mater Harrow School and then to Oxford University. Gu lived in Britain for about two years while her son was in school there, and it is thought Heywood offered Gu financial advice.
Heywood’s death was initially blamed on excessive alcohol consumption, and his body was quickly cremated. But in February, Wang Lijun, an aide to Bo Xilai, fled to the U. S. consulate in Chengdu and asked for protection.
“You have a situation in which the public doesn’t know anything but the Chinese authorities know that the American authorities know something, so the Chinese authorities at that point really have no choice but to consider this information public, because at any time the Americans could have spread it,” said Nathan.
“I’m sure the Americans told the British authorities what they knew about the fate of a British citizen, so in other words, it wasn’t public, but it was no longer secret either, so the Chinese hand was forced, they had to deal with it,” said Nathan.
The trial follows the ouster of Gu’s husband, Bo Xilai, from his powerful post as Communist Party chief of Chongqing. It is not yet known whether Bo’s political fate has been determined by party leaders.
The son of a famous revolutionary leader, Bo had been considered a top contender for the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body. But his charisma and leftist policies such as evoking nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution angered some party officials. Bo was stripped of his post and placed under investigation following Wang’s flight to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu.
The scandal also impacted the party’s leadership transition. Ken Dewoskin, director of Deloitte’s China Research and Insight Center in Beijing, said the Bo Xilai purge illustrates the factionalism within the Communist Party.
“It takes a lot of political wrangling to topple a top leader like that,” said Dewoskin. “Obviously he would have very strong support in the top echelons, a very large patronage network, a lot of people who trusted him, their resistance to purging him had to be overcome.”
Andrew Nathan believes the Gu case is an offshoot of the larger Bo Xilai scandal. “The bigger power struggle was Bo’s enemies trying to find something on him, and they did, and so he is no longer a candidate for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee,“ he said.
The current meeting of senior party leaders at the Beidaihe resort also fanned speculation as to the direction of the party and the timing of the party congress, usually held in the fall. “Now the story is with this Beidaihe retreat that there is a consensus, that things are under control, that there is not a major fracture that the public has to worry about, that things will proceed normally,” said Dewoskin.