Following the announcement last week of homicide charges against Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced politician Bo Xilai is expected to be tried soon for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. The official Xinhua news agency states that Gu has accepted government-appointed defense lawyers, a possible indicator of a deal struck behind the scenes. From Isolda Morillo at the Associated Press:
The wife of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai has agreed to be defended by two government-appointed lawyers in the murder case against her, two different lawyers with knowledge of the case said Saturday. Her decision could be the latest sign that a resolution to her case is near.
A lawyer close to the case said Gu and her family have accepted the court appointment of Anhui lawyer Jiang Min, a director of the provincial lawyers’ association, as her defense lawyer, along with a second lawyer, Zhou Yuhao of Wuhu, another Anhui city.
But Gu may have had no real choice in her legal representation, and the verdict seems to be a foregone conclusion. At Reuters, Michael Martina and Sui-Lee Wee describe the case in the context of China’s faltering progress towards rule of law:
Gu will not have access to her family lawyer, Shen Zhigeng, who has revealed that other legal counsel have been assigned to her case. China’s official Xinhua news agency has already said the evidence against Gu will be “irrefutable and substantial” when the case goes to court, likely next week.
“It makes the case a transparent sham,” said Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University. “If you forbid people to have the best lawyer they can and you assign lawyers who you control…it renders the whole thing an obvious farce.”
[…] As ever in China, there is a pithy phrase to sum up Chinese justice. “You will have heard the saying ‘the police cooks the food, the prosecutor serves it and the court eats it’,” said Eva Pils, a law expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Another legal peculiarity in the case is the choice of venue, which George Washington University law professor Donald Clarke explored at Caixin:
To the best of my knowledge, neither the accused nor the victim – in fact, nothing about the case – is remotely connected with Hefei. But of course, that is very likely the reason the government has decided to try the case there. There is a long tradition of trying cases involving high-level officials outside their power base – one source estimates this happens 90 percent of the time – because of fears they can use their local influence to influence the result. Indeed, that courts are vulnerable to this kind of pressure is readily admitted even in the most orthodox sources.
[…] The decision to have the trial in Hefei simply cannot be accounted for under the current rules of the Chinese legal system. There is no legal institution that could have made that decision. Instead, an extra-legal decision was made (I use the passive voice deliberately here) that this is how the matter would be handled, and that decision was then transmitted to all relevant actors in the legal system.
There is nothing inherently unjust about trying officials away from their home base, and the government could at any time amend the law to provide a way for these decisions to be made within the legal system. What’s interesting is that nobody important has apparently ever thought it necessary or worth while to bring the law into line with the practice.
As details of the case unfold, new questions have arisen about Heywood’s own part in the events that led to his death. From The Telegraph’s David Eimer:
Gu Kailai, the wife of the disgraced politician Bo Xilai, is expected to be tried for poisoning the old Harrovian businessman with cyanide within the next two weeks. But as she prepares to face justice, Mr Heywood’s former colleagues and acquaintances are wondering if her claims that she feared for the “personal security” of herself and her son Bo Guagua, in the face of unspecified threats from Mr Heywood, mean that he is now also in the dock.
[…] “The court will consider if Mr Heywood threatened them. If it is true that the victim has done something wrong, the court might take that into consideration and give a lighter punishment to the accused,” said Mo Shaoping, a prominent Beijing-based lawyer who defended the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Different sides of “the Chinese Lady Macbeth” have also come to the fore. From Gillian Wong at the Associated Press:
Gu Kailai has been many things to many people: devoted wife, ambitious lawyer, gracious host, menacing businesswoman and, now, China’s most famous murder suspect.
[…] Impressions of Gu varied: Two American guests Gu invited to the Chinese city of Dalian in 1997 described her as a kind and attentive host who put the visitors up at a fancy resort, personally took them around the city and feted them with banquets. But a British businessman who worked for two years with Gu in a venture said she could be vicious when angry, once threatening to throw him in jail if he went to China.
The fall of Bo ahead of the once-a-decade leadership transition is a triumphant moment for his political rivals, particularly Wang Yang, the Guangdong party boss of Guangdong whose more liberal approach was frequently contrasted with Bo’s harder “Chongqing Model”. From Bob Davis at The Wall Street Journal:
Less than a year ago, Bo Xilai and Wang Yang—Guangdong province’s party chief—were both on China’s Politburo and strong contenders to ascend to its Standing Committee. Since then, Mr. Bo has been dismissed from his party posts and accused of “serious discipline violations” and his wife has been indicted for murder.
That clears an obstacle for Mr. Wang, Guangdong province’s party chief, who is seen in the West and among some of China’s elite as a standard-bearer of reform. Should he get a slot on the Standing Committee, it could be a signal that the new leadership will seek to accelerate market-oriented changes.
The scandal also stirs up various discussions among political analysts, some of whom see the incident as a suppression of individualism within the Communist Party. From Jonathan Fenby at The Guardian:
Top-level Chinese politics does not favour individualism. Long gone are the days when Mao wallowed in a personality cult, when Deng Xiaoping took Margaret Thatcher aback with his liberal use of the spittoon or when his successor, Jiang Zemin, sang a karaoke version of Love Me Tender at a Pacific summit. Today’s leaders present a uniform front with their full heads of jet-black hair and business suits (they are all men). They move in lock-step and act against anybody who gets out of line.
[…] Though official reports of the case last week convicted her in advance, Gu may be saved from execution by her mental state and the argument that she acted to protect her son from Heywood. But the key factor for the leadership is to put a distance between what happened in the Chongqing hills and the political movement that has ruled China since 1949. For all its economic progress, the bottom line remains the preservation of political power. The error of Bo and Gu was to imagine themselves bigger than the system. In today’s China, that is the cardinal sin.
Others analysts argue that Bo’s purge opens a dangerous precedent for the ruling CCP. From Minxin Pei at The Diplomat:
While most people understandably cheer the downfall of characters like Bo, arrogant, hypocritical, cruel, and greedy apparatchiks when they are in power, the political implications of their demise and the manner in which they are purged are not those of a morality play. On the contrary, how the powerful lose power and what happens to them afterwards can tell us a great deal about the nature of the political regime in which they thrive and perish. In the case of the current Chinese regime, the ugly purge of Bo reveals many of its dark sides: corruption, lawlessness, hypocrisy, and ruthlessness. Such qualities of a regime make it illegitimate and undermines its durability. However, rarely do we view political power struggles from the perspective of a regime insider. As a result, we often fail to appreciate how the insecurity of top elites constitutes a fatal threat to the very regime that has made and unmade their political fortune.
Reflecting these sensitivities, China has banned internet users from discussing the Bo family. From AFP:
State news agency Xinhua’s report saying Gu Kailai had been charged with poisoning a British businessman was the third most reposted story on China’s most popular microblog Sina Weibo on Friday morning.
But users trying to comment on the subject on Weibo received a message saying they were barred from doing so by “relevant laws and policies”, while attempts to search for Gu Kailai’s name and her initials were also blocked.
Despite efforts to set the direction of public opinion, the image of Bo as a populist hero has not faded away completely, and a pro-Bo rebound has taken place online. From Reuters’ Ben Blanchard:
China’s ruling Communist Party might insist that the murder charge against Gu Kailai, the wife of ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai, is a simple case of all being equal before the law, but winning over the jury of public opinion is proving tough.
“Who on earth could believe this?” wrote one microblogger, of the Global Times editorial. “Bo has just lost his personal battle; this case has never had anything to do with the rule of law.”
Others thought Xinhua’s wording that “the crimes are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial” ruled out any pretence at Gu getting a fair trial.
“It looks like the court is just going to be reading out the Xinhua piece … What a shameless society without governance. I hope it collapses.”