Gu Kailai’s (谷開來) murder conviction ends one of China’s most sensational cases in years and throws the spotlight onto her husband as the country’s leaders seek to call time on a major political scandal.
Gu’s husband, former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chongqing secretary Bo Xilai (薄熙來), was one of China’s most popular political leaders until the scandal over British businessman Neil Heywood’s death burst into the open earlier this year, ending his hopes of promotion in a power handover that starts this autumn.
On Monday, his wife was convicted of poisoning Heywood in a hotel room in Chongqing, the southwestern megacity her husband ran, and given a suspended death sentence — a punishment that many in China considered too lenient.
China’s state-run media has presented Gu’s prosecution as evidence that nobody is above the law as the CCP attempts to resolve the crisis before its once-in-a-decade leadership transition at a party congress this year.
However, Chinese netizens on Monday angrily denounced the decision to spare Gu execution, contrasting her fate with that of a vegetable seller sentenced to death in 2009 for the murder of two officials.
Analysts say it remains unclear whether people will accept the verdict in a case that critics say was decided well before any evidence was presented in court, to minimize embarrassment for the party.
“The damage [from the Bo case] is already very, very severe, so it is really now a case of damage control,” said Cheng Li (李成), an expert in Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “But of course the whole thing is not over yet, as we are still waiting to see Bo Xilai dealt with, and that will be very, very crucial coming into the party congress.”
Bo was dismissed as Chongqing party secretary in March, before being removed from the powerful 25-member politburo and placed under investigation for violating party discipline — usually code for corruption.
He enjoyed strong public support during his tenure as party chief of the southwestern city for a tough crackdown on graft and organized crime that saw scores of officials detained and executed.
However, critics saw the campaign as an attempt by Bo to win promotion, amid accusations that judicial procedures were routinely flouted to secure convictions.
Bo’s right-hand man in Chongqing, Wang Lijun (王立軍), who first raised the alarm over Gu’s involvement in Heywood’s death and is now facing trial, is suspected of having used torture to extract confessions.
“The most severe crime is murder, the second is Bo creating his own political party and personality in Chongqing,” Li said of the scandal that brought down Bo, who has not been directly implicated in the murder. “The third area will be corruption, but there is also a fourth area, which could potentially be more serious than corruption, and that is the police brutality, the abuse of power and the torture.”
Four Chongqing police officers were on Monday convicted of trying to conceal Heywood’s murder to protect Gu, raising the possibility that Bo could be implicated in a cover-up and face criminal prosecution.
However, a lengthy account of Gu’s trial issued by Xinhua news agency made no mention of Bo, which analysts said could indicate the party has decided to treat him leniently.
Boston University international relations expert Joseph Fewsmith said Bo may escape criminal investigation altogether, and that if he did not, the charges would likely be limited to covering up Gu’s crimes.