This week, the mysterious death of British businessman Neil Heywood in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing last year will be the subject of the show trial of Gu Kailai, the wife of Bo Xilai, the former secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Chongqing Municipal Committee.
Some months have passed since the matter came to light when former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun sought refuge at a U.S. consulate. Mr. Wang told the Americans that his life was in danger because he had reported the cover-up of Mr. Heywood’s murder to the party’s higher authorities. The consulate was soon surrounded by Chinese police vehicles, and after a couple of days the police chief was inveigled to emerge. He has not been seen or heard from since.
Mr. Wang has evidently been accused of treason for appealing to the Americans for help, who were not prepared to extend it to him. His future is bleak.
As for Ms. Gu, normally one would expect that, once the police established that there was a case to be made for the murder of her business associate, charges would be laid, a prosecution would be assembled and a lengthy trial would ensue in the jurisdiction where the alleged offence occurred.
In fact, she will be tried in Hefei, a city in eastern China, hundreds of kilometres from Chongqing or Beijing. Her own lawyer will not participate in her defence; instead, local ones will be appointed by the court. And based on precedent, if those lawyers defend her with any degree of vigour, they will end up in a Chinese prison themselves.
To the extent that the speedy two-day hearing will be publicized, no one expects anything to come out of it that has not been scripted. Again, based on a long history of show trials in China since the Communist Party assumed power in 1949, a narrative will be crafted to explain everything in a way that furthers the interests of the ascendant faction in the ongoing power struggle within the party. And as Ms. Gu has likely been subject to extensive coercion and menacing during interrogation, we can expect to hear her parroting the official narrative of her case, if we hear from her at all.
In the meantime, her husband is being held without charge and subjected to a Central Commission for Discipline Inspection investigation, an elaborate process called shuanggui. From what is known of this procedure, it almost certainly involves the extensive use of physical and psychological torture.
Of course, all of the above is contrary to China’s constitutional guarantees, laws and declared practices. Senior leaders in China’s security apparatus will tell you that all criminal interrogations are videotaped to ensure that nothing improper occurs. But like many official Chinese assurances, no one believes this in the face of so much evidence to the contrary.
It is against this cultural backdrop that Canadians this summer are seeing the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) trying to buy Calgary-based oil-and-gas company Nexen Inc. for $15.1-billion.
The chairman of the CNOOC board is Wang Yilin. More importantly, he is also the secretary of the CNOOC Chinese Communist Party Committee and was appointed to his job by the party’s central committee.
CNOOC’s party committee has a party discipline inspection group whose head, Zhang Jianwei, is also a senior member of the CNOOC board. Mr. Zhang’s job is to make sure that all the leaders of Nexen comply with the secret directives of the party leadership in Beijing. Woe betide those who don’t follow the party’s will for CNOOC. They know that shuanggui awaits the recalcitrant who might want to put the interests of Nexen’s Canadian shareholders first.
As it attempts to buy into Canada’s energy sector, CNOOC is promising to adhere to Canadian constitutional guarantees, laws and practices if Ottawa approves the takeover. (CNOOC has also added financial sweeteners and commitments to make the deal more appealing to the Nexen board and shareholders.)
But CNOOC is a function of the Chinese party-state, and it is difficult to believe this will all go the way CNOOC, its Canadian lawyers, PR agencies and “pro-China” Canadian supporters say it will – at least, not by what we know of how the Chinese Communist Party operates domestically. What the party claims are its practices and what it actually does under the cloak of secrecy are rarely the same. Nasty and deceitful and dishonest things go on, and Beijing sees this as justified by the greater good of “the sacred mission” of China’s comprehensive rise to power under the leadership of the Communist political and business elite.
Meanwhile, as her trial gets set to begin, there is always the possibility that Ms. Gu did not, in fact, conspire to murder Neil Heywood – although we will likely never know for sure.
Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.