Justice on trial

Published : Sep 21, 2012 00:00 IST

China: The trial of Gu Kailai, wife of purged Politburo member Bo Xilai, has been a balancing act for the Communist Party of China.

THE August 9 trial of Gu Kailai, wife of purged Communist Party of China (CPC) Politburo member Bo Xilai, has invoked many comparisons with what was arguably the most famous court case modern China has seen the trial of the Gang of Four in 1981. On the surface, the parallels are easy to see. Both trials marked an attempt by the party to close the chapter on turbulent political events. Both cases involved the charismatic wives of powerful leaders. Taking the stand in 1981 was Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong, along with her three associates Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan who were blamed for the horrors of the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Both trials ended with the same verdicts a suspended death sentence handed out to their star defendants, Jiang and Gu. The two cases also left lingering questions among those who followed the proceedings, whether the women were easy scapegoats for the faults of their more influential husbands the latest of a long line of dragon lady caricatures that Chinese culture has loved to loathe, going all the way back to the seventh century Empress Wu Zetian.

The similarities, however, end there. The trial of Jiang Qing was a public spectacle. Every family that owned a television set was said to gather in their living room every evening for the days updates on the fate of the widely disliked Jiang. This was a show trial in every sense of the term. The proceedings were broadcast across the country, and according to accounts from that time, they appeared to have gripped the nation. Jiang, once a famous actress in Shanghai, made for a colourful star defendant. She appeared to show not one sign of remorse for her role in the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. During the trial, she famously declared that she was only Chairman Maos dog and bit whomever he asked me to bite.

A show trial without the show

The Gu Kailai trial, by contrast, was a show trial without the show. The party carefully choreographed the proceedings to ensure that there was as little public attention as possible. To begin with, the trial was held far away from Beijing, in Hefei, the grim industrial capital of the central Anhui province. There was no conceivable legal justification to hold the hearings in Hefei. Gus alleged crime of murdering British businessman and Bo family associate Neil Heywood was committed in south-western Chongqing, where her husband served as party secretary. Hearings were concluded in less than seven hours after the trial opened on the morning of August 9. Remarkably, only one witness was called to testify in the biggest trial China has seen in a generation. The proceedings were closed to the media; they were attended by a carefully screened audience of 140 people, including relatives, provincial CPC officials and British diplomats.

That the CPC wanted to close the chapter on Gus case as quickly as possible is not surprising. The scandal surrounding Gu and Bo presented the party with a difficult balancing act at the worst possible time on the eve of a once-in-10-years leadership transition. The case has shed light on the corruption at the highest levels of the party, exposing the often murky ties between party officials, local businessmen and law enforcement agencies. It has also led to renewed questions about both the partys willingness and capability to deal with rising corruption within its ranks, a problem flagged by CPC general secretary Hu Jintao as the biggest threat to its legitimacy as the fifth generation of its leaders prepares to take over.

It took only 10 days for Gus fate to be settled. A verdict delivered on August 20 by the Hefei Intermediate Peoples Court spared her the death penalty, sentencing her to death with a two-year reprieve. During the less-than-seven-hour hearing, Gu did not contest the charge of intentional homicide. Prosecutors said she had put poison in Heywoods mouth after he had become drunk and vomited; the two were drinking together in a Chongqing hotel room. An orderly at the Bo household, Zhang Xiaojun, was given a nine-year jail term for assisting Gu. Prosecutors said Gu was driven to killing Heywood because he had detained and threatened her son Guagua, who is a graduate student at Harvard, after a business deal encountered problems. Gu was a far more remorseful defendant than Jiang Qing was: her actions, she said, had produced great losses to the party and the country, for which I ought to shoulder the responsibility, and I will never feel at ease.

The trial has concluded and the verdict has been delivered, but there is still much that is unclear about both the proceedings and the genesis of the scandal. What is known is that the scandal surrounding the Bos and Heywood came into the public domain only three months after Heywoods death, when the former police chief in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, fled to a United States consulate, in nearby Chengdu, on February 6. Wang told U.S. diplomats he feared for his life and asked to be placed in the custody of State Security officials. He also claimed to have evidence that Heywood, who was pronounced dead in November owing to excessive alcohol consumption, had been poisoned by Gu Kailai. State-run media did not report on Wangs flight to the consulate, which only came to light on February 7 when photographs of a remarkable stand-off at the U.S. consulate, which had been surrounded by Chongqing police forces deployed in pursuit of Wang, circulated on Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese Twitter equivalent used by 300 million people.

The rise and fall of Bo Xilai

Until Wangs fateful flight to the Consulate, Bo Xilai was seen as a key figure in the next generation of the leadership that will come into power following the 18th Party Congress, scheduled to be held in late September or October. A member of the 25-member Politburo, Bo had impeccable credentials and was seen as a front runner for a position on the next Politburo Standing Committee. Seven of the nine members of the powerful body will step down following the Party Congress, during which Vice-President Xi Jinping is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as general secretary. Bo, like Xi, is a member of the party aristocracy, a princeling whose father, Bo Yibo, was a CPC revolutionary and a close ally of Mao.

Bos profile had risen considerably during his term as Commerce Minister. Bo made no secret of his national ambitions during his posting in Beijing. His charismatic style had made him popular with both the business elite and the media. It did, however, also bring him many detractors, who saw the brash princeling as a dangerous figure who did not play by the established party rules of keeping a low profile. Bo was seen as violating an unwritten code of conduct by openly campaigning for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee. His critics appeared to have succeeded in thwarting his ambitions by arranging for him to be posted as party secretary in far-away Chongqing in 2007 at a time when Bo was known to be looking for a prominent posting in the capital.

Not to be silenced, Bo reinvented himself in Chongqing. In a not-so-subtle message to Beijing, he decided to take on through high-profile public campaigns the two biggest problems todays China is facing corruption and rising inequality. With the help of Wang Lijun, who became his right-hand man as police chief, Bo launched a smash the black campaign, taking on the notorious Chongqing mafia. More than 1,500 corrupt officials were jailed some, including the municipalitys top judicial official Wen Qiang, were speedily executed. The campaign was widely popular. Bo also invested heavily in social welfare campaigns, giving migrant workers access to benefits usually denied by hukou or household registration rules. Leftist scholars praised his policies, dubbed as the Chongqing Model an antidote to the legacies of crony capitalism and inequalities left by two decades of liberalisation and reforms. More controversial were Bos Mao-style campaigns to organise the mass singing of Red songs and to send college students to work in the countryside. While Bos supporters argued that the campaigns were popular, his critics derided them as cheap populism and unwanted reminders of the Cultural Revolution.

Bo had appeared to survive what had become known in China as the February 6 Wang Lijun incident when the National Peoples Congress (NPC), or Parliament, convened in March. In his last public appearance, Bo defended his record eloquently when he met with a small group of select Chinese and foreign journalists, including this correspondent, following a meeting of the Chongqing delegation at the Great Hall of the People. Provincial party secretaries usually meet with the media following delegation meetings at the NPC. But that the CPC allowed Bo a public platform so soon after the Wang Lijun scandal had appeared to suggest he still had a future in the party.

We will become capitalist

When you ask anyone in the street in Chongqing about the fight against black society [or the mafia], Bo said at the meeting, they will say the government has achieved a lot in cracking down on corruption here. If Bo was facing pressure following Wang Lijuns trip to the U.S. consulate, he certainly did not show it. In his usually forthright style, he went as far as criticising the current model of economic development, pointing out that Chinas Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, had exceeded 0.46. The 0.4 mark is seen as a trigger for social unrest.

In the beginning of the Peoples Republic, Mao said we must build a socialist country and not only allow a few people to become rich, Bo said. If only a small group of people become rich, we will become a capitalist society. That will take us down a wrong road. The basic political belief in Chongqing is for people to become wealthy together, so that this will also reduce the cost of maintaining stability. Narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor is a fundamental element in socialism. He said his welfare policies had raised the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in Chongqing by $1,000 every year, in part due to his pioneering reform of household registration rules, which denied an estimated 150 million migrant workers access to social benefits across China. We have solved housing and education problems with this reform, Bo said.

Bos performance had left those present in the room including Chongqings parliamentarians convinced that his future was secure. Those impressions were, however, challenged on the last day of the parliament session. During his annual press conference with the media, Premier Wen Jiabao was asked about the Wang Lijun incident. Since the press conference is a tightly choreographed affair, it was evident that Wen speaking for Hu Jintao and the top leadership had come prepared with a message for Bo. Wen said the Chongqing leadership needed to seriously reflect on the Wang Lijun incident. The Premier also went as far as attacking Bos policies in Chongqing. He said the CPC had reached a consensus in its third plenum in 1978 on certain historical questions relating to the mistakes made by the party during the Cultural Revolution, and to carry forward reforms. Any practice we take must be based on experience and lessons we have gained from history and serve the peoples interest, Wen said in a veiled criticism of Bo. I believe the people fully recognise this point.

A day after Wens comments, Bo was sacked as Chongqing party secretary. A month later, the CPC suspended him from the Politburo and said he was being investigated over serious disciplinary violations. The CPC also confirmed the account Wang Lijun gave U.S. diplomats, revealing in a brief statement that there was clear evidence of Gu Kailais role in the death of Heywood.

More questions than answers

Much about the Bo Xilai affair still remains unclear. It was apparent that there was considerable opposition to Bos rise in Beijing, despite his vast network of allies among fellow princelings and in the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), where his father had deep ties. Who triggered the falling out between Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai and whether they had the backing of the Politburo Standing Committee remains a mystery.

The troubles began when the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) in Beijing began investigating Wang. It appeared that Bo had sought to distance himself from his once close associate after the investigations began. Bo removed him from his post as police chief in January. Wang has claimed to officials, according to leaks in the Chinese media, that his demotion had followed an angry outburst from Bo when he was confronted about the role of Gu in Heywoods death. Whether Wang raised the Heywood case two months after he had been buried without an autopsy to blackmail Bo for support, as some Chinese insiders have suggested, remains unclear.

What is clear is that the August 20 verdict on Gu Kailai allows the CPC to move forward with the more difficult task of dealing with Bo. He is expected to be expelled from the party before the 18th Party Congress, possibly during the seventh and last plenary session of the current 17th Central Committee, likely to be held in early September. CPC officials with ties to Bo favour the case being closed with his expulsion. Others are pressing for him to be tried by judicial authorities, following the examples of the last two Politburo members expelled for corruption former Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong and former Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu, who were given jail terms of 16 and 18 years, respectively. The CPC faces a delicate balancing act, as too strong a judgment may be seen as provoking Bos allies and his supporters on the Left.

The other challenge for the CPC is to address renewed questions about corruption in the party and judicial transparency that have been triggered by the trial. The verdict was seen widely in China, by journalists and hundreds of microbloggers on Sina Weibo and other websites, as an outcome of political bargaining that had little to do with the law. Courts in China answer to the CPCs Political and Legal Committees and do not have independence to carry out investigations. Hundreds of comments online questioned why Gu was spared the death penalty, suggesting that ordinary citizens who were not the spouses of senior officials would have certainly been dealt a different fate.

The case made by the prosecutors as choreographed as it may have been revealed a world where provincial party bosses acted with impunity and leaders families were involved in multibillion-dollar business deals. Heywood was thought to have fallen out with the Bos after a 14-million windfall that he expected from a 140-million investment deal in France fell through.

Bos son Guagua had reportedly arranged the deal with Xu Ming, Chairman of the Dalian Shide group and one of Chinas richest businessmen. The close links between Bo Xilai and the business magnate Xu Ming, who made his fortune in north-eastern Dalian at a time when Bo served as party secretary, are being investigated by party authorities. Xu Ming is also believed to be under detention.

Hu Shuli, the editor of the liberal and pro-reform Caixin magazine, which has been critical of Bo, pointed out in a commentary that there was a wide impression that the rule of law had been trampled upon at various levels.

Just think, from the moment when [Gu Kailai] planned the murder up until the Chongqing police were able to maintain a cover-up of the crime, she was never concerned, never panicked, because she believed she would enjoy total impunity for the crime, Hu wrote. If it werent for Wang Lijuns stay in the U.S. consulate, there would not be any public information about it and no justice for the dead. The criminal would still be at large, she added, holding an untarnished reputation as a high-powered lawyer and spouse of a senior official.

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