The trial, conviction and suspended death sentence of Gu Kailai (谷開來), the wife of purged Chinese leader Bo Xilai (薄熙來), has called into question not only China’s legal system, but the very unity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership.
Let us begin with the many questions raised at the trial. First, Gu claimed that she killed the British businessman Neil Heywood only to protect her son. However, given Gu’s power as Bo’s wife, she could have had someone like Heywood jailed or expelled from China at the snap of her fingers. Still, she not only admitted her guilt, but seemed to embrace it as a sort of historical necessity.
“In order to uphold the sanctity of the law,” she told the court, “I am willing to accept and calmly face whatever judgement I am given, and I also expect a fair and just judgment.”
Not since Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s has a defendant so effusively praised a judge who seemed bound to condemn her at a trial where no witness or evidence against her was presented.
The bitter irony of Gu’s high-speed trial is that she was a true believer in China’s legal system.
Indeed, following a victory in a US court, Gu, a lawyer, wrote a book in which she claimed that China provides “the fairest method of trial.”
She continued, “Chinese lawyers would not quibble over the meaning of each little word. Once they are sure that you murdered someone, you will be arrested, judged, and executed by firing squad.”
Gu was an avatar of the Maoist form of legality that China has maintained long since Mao’s death.
Having failed the entrance examination to Peking University, Gu was nonetheless granted an exception and admitted to read law soon after the Communist Party restored its law departments.
Gu was one of the first lawyers to receive her license. However, with the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the authorities clamped down on the profession’s autonomy. The CCP reasserted control over every aspect of justice through a core department: the Communist Party Central Committee’s Political and Legal Affairs Committee (PLAC).
This totalitarian organ has no known address, yet it manages China’s police, prosecutors, courts and justice ministry, and appoints their leaders. All lawyers fall under its remit. Most important, all local PLAC secretaries simultaneously lead the local public-security bureau. Small wonder that the artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) could be detained in secret, Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) could be sentenced to 11 years in prison for starting a petition and Li Wangyang (李旺陽) could “commit suicide” while in custody.
However, even this monolithic system of control is porous. Had Wang Lijun (王立軍), the former Chongqing police commissioner and a close ally of Bo Xilai, not feared for his life and fled to the US’ consulate in Chengdu, Gu would still be helping Bo in ruling the city.
Wang is no saint. Before he became Bo’s police commissioner, he was the director of the Field Psychology Research Center, where the condemned were executed and their live organs removed.
Given his familiarity with the brutality of the Chinese system, Wang no doubt understood that, after falling out with Gu and Bo, the US consulate might be the only place he could find safety.
After all, when it came to the public-security organs, the courts and the prison system, Gu always had the final say. She acted as her husband’s adviser for cracking down on crime and corruption and was responsible for sending two people — including the PLAC secretary in Wushan County — to prison.