Bo Xilai’s Wife Charged with Heywood Killing (Updated)

Xinhua reports that Gu Kailai, wife of Bo Xilai, and Zhang Xiaojun, a family aide, have been charged with the “intentional homicide” of British businessman Neil Heywood. Heywood’s death in November last year led to Bo’s sudden fall from grace in February, cutting short his expected ascent to the highest levels of the Party and national government.

Bogu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun were recently charged with intentional homicide by the Hefei Municipal Procuratorate in Anhui province, Xinhua learned from authorities Thursday.

[…] Investigation results show that Bogu Kailai, one of the defendants, and her son surnamed Bo had conflicts with the British citizen Neil Heywood over economic interests. Worrying about Neil Heywood’s threat to her son’s personal security, Bogu Kailai along with Zhang Xiaojun, the other defendant, poisoned Neil Heywood to death.

The facts of the two defendants’ crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial. Therefore, the two defendants should be charged with intentional homicide.

Xinhua uses the unconventional compound family name “Bogu”, apparently to emphasise the connection between husband and wife. Bo’s own case is not mentioned, but the announcement of Gu’s charges may indicate that it will soon reach a conclusion. From CNN:

“This was expected,” said Joseph Fewsmith, an international relations professor at Boston University and a long-time China watcher, referring to the murder charges.

[…] “There was a desire on the part of the Chinese Communist Party to get this case settled. It’s not yet, but it is out of the party and into the hands of criminal courts — well before the 18th Party Congress. We should expect a resolution of the Bo Xilai case within the next couple weeks,” Fewsmith said.

“With these cases being dealt with at this time, I expect there to be smooth sailing to the 18th Party congress. There may be some bargaining to go, but most of it has been done.”

As in the case of Chen Guangcheng’s nephew Chen Kegui, CNN reports that the family’s own choice of lawyers has been pushed aside by government appointees. New York University law professor Jerome Cohen recently argued that frequent obstruction of criminal suspects’ legal defence “make[s] a mockery of China’s claims to have established ‘a socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics’“.

Update, 18:52 PST: Tea Leaf Nation has collected social media reactions to the premiere of “Season 2 of China’s hottest political drama”. Some netizens have debated the charges’ credibility or speculated about the outcome, while others questioned whether “a battle among the gods” really has anything to do with them. Others, though, have been keen to analyse the big political picture:

@雨过天晴merry tweets, “I knew this matter would become a criminal case and dilute the political infighting.” @持之以恒创新改变生活 is not fazed by the political inflighting, “Fight it out. How can there be reform if there is not infighting.” @扑鸟个通 tweets, “Although it might be political persecution, but I think it’s a good thing that Bo loses out. His ‘red movement’ makes me scared.”

@大字半斗 gives his summary,

“1) The indictment is low profile and shows they want a ‘cold treatment.’ 2) They emphasize the murder and the motive, but not the US$60 million [rumored to be the amount involved in Gu’s corrupt dealings] and the ideological differences [between Bo Xilai and other leaders], 3) Left open the possibility for Gu to get out of a death sentence, and left space for Bo Xilai to re-emerge onto the political stage, so it is a happy ending for all.”

The Guardian’s Tania Branigan also explored the political context, and argued that far from highlighting the “Bogu” marriage as suggested above, the authorities may hope to separate the two cases as far as possible.

Some think that is because any hint of a connection between a leader and a murder would sully the reputation of the party as a whole.

But Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China policy institute at Nottingham University, argued: “I think [the absence of new information about Bo] probably confirms that they can relatively easily agree as to what to do with her – but have not yet fully agreed on what to do with him.”

Other analysts point out the party faces a dilemma in terms of public perception: Go too easy on Gu, and it could be taken as yet more evidence that powerful figures get an easy ride. Come down hard, and it could look like a political vendetta.

The timing of the announcement may have been intended to avoid too much public attention to any aspect of the case. From Keith Richburg at The Washington Post:

One analyst of China’s elite politics, Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution in Washington, noted that the timing of Thursday’s announcement, just 24 hours before the opening of the London Olympics, would likely mean less public attention would be paid to the development here in China, where Bo maintains some popular support, and also in Britain, Heywood’s native country.

The timing “will likely reduce some of the coverage internationally,” Li said, as well as among China’s active microblogging community. “Maybe 75 percent of the netizens will be turning to TV to look at the Olympics,” he said.

But a Global Times editorial suggested that public attention to Gu’s trial should actually be encouraged:

[…] A trial held according to law will strengthen the Chinese people’s confidence in the country’s legal system.

[…] Legal departments should disclose enough information regarding the trial to satisfy the public’s demands. The more details are revealed, the more it will help build public confidence in China’s legal framework.

It will be a landmark trial. So far, it has sent a message to society that nobody, regardless of his or her status and power, can be exempt from punishment if he or she behaves unscrupulously, especially if he harms another person’s life.

The obstruction of the family’s choice of lawyers and the fact that state media have already declared the evidence to be “irrefutable and substantial” (see above) suggest that the legal proceedings may in fact be less than exemplary. Suspicions are rife that the prosecution has become a political tool. From Andrew Jacobs at The New York Times:

Although no one has presented any compelling evidence to rebut the official narrative that Ms. Gu, 53, played a role in the death of the businessman, many wonder if party leaders are using her case to deflect public disgust over the kind of corruption and abuse of power that critics say was embodied by her husband. Mr. Bo, who was suspended last April from the Politburo and has not been heard from since, has so far remained in a parallel justice system reserved for the party elite. His fate was not mentioned in the brief statement announcing his wife’s trial.

“Throughout Chinese history, whenever there’s a political struggle, whenever someone has to fall, they blame the wife,” said Hung Huang, the publisher of a fashion magazine whose own mother, Mao Zedong’s former English tutor, spent two years under house arrest after she was accused of collaborating with the Gang of Four.

Chinese history is sprinkled with tales of cunning women whose outsize ambitions led them — and sometimes the men in their lives — to ruination. Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, took much of the blame for the calamitous decade of the Cultural Revolution, a point driven home in a televised show trial that electrified the nation. And Chinese schoolchildren can readily recite the crimes of Empress Dowager Cixi, who is portrayed as a rapacious, homicidal leader whose machinations helped topple the Qing dynasty.

See more on Bo Xilai, Gu Kailai and Neil Heywood via CDT, or refresh your memory with Olga Khazan’s summary at The Washington Post.