The disgrace of one of the most powerful families in China was completed Sunday as Gu Kailai – the wife of a once-rising Communist Party politician – was convicted of murdering a British businessman and given a suspended death sentence.
The fall of Ms. Gu and her husband Bo Xilai has been spectacular and swift. Six months ago, she was one of the most famous lawyers in China and he was the Communist Party boss of the southwestern city of Chongqing, widely expected to be named this year to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the nine-person body that is the pinnacle of power in this country.
Today Ms. Gu is contemplating the possibility she may be executed by a firing squad, though her sentence is likely to be commuted to life in prison after two years. A family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, was sentenced to nine years in jail after confessing to purchasing cyanide at Ms. Gu’s request and then helping her give it to Neil Heywood, a 41-year-old Briton who had been close to the family for years but had apparently fallen out with Ms. Gu over money.
A witness in the courtroom told Reuters news service that Ms. Gu and Mr. Zhang had both indicated they would not appeal the verdicts.
While some had expected a death sentence for the 53-year-old Ms. Gu, the official Xinhua version of the trial noted she had acted out of a belief Mr. Heywood had threatened her son, something that likely served to mitigate her sentence. The Communist Party may also have been apprehensive about executing someone as prominent as Ms. Gu, given Mr. Bo’s lingering popularity in Chongqing and elsewhere.Mr. Bo is being detained in an unknown location, awaiting discipline from the national leadership. He has been accused in the state-run media of corruption and abuse of power and has not been seen or heard from since he was purged from his posts in March.
“[Ms. Gu’s sentence] is very likely a political decision, rather than a judicial one,” said He Weifang, a law professor at Beijing University, speaking before the verdict was announced. “The decision does not mean that Bo will not also be criminally charged in the future. It’s not the end of the whole case, it’s just part of a long story.”
The scandal has already triggered the most serious political turmoil to hit China since 1989, and Mr. Bo’s fate still hangs over China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition, which is set to begin this fall. One of the most charismatic politicians China has seen in recent decades, Mr. Bo was also privileged as the son of Bo Yibo, who was considered a founding father of the People’s Republic. The younger Mr. Bo became famous in his own right for the aggressive law-and-order campaigns he launched in Chongqing, as well as his efforts to revive Maoist culture there.
Mr. Bo’s career path changed sharply after Wang Lijun, his longtime police chief, entered a U.S. consulate in February and requested political asylum. Mr. Wang was refused and eventually convinced to leave the consulate, but not before he told U.S. officials about the murder of Mr. Heywood, which he reportedly taped Ms. Gu confessing to. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese government began investigating alleged abuses of power in Chongqing, including the November 2011 death of Mr. Heywood.
Mr. Wang – who according to Xinhua’s account initially agreed to help Ms. Gu kill Mr. Heywood before backing out – is expected to face trial himself soon. There’s speculation he may be charged with treason related to his flight into the U.S. consulate. A conviction could carry the death penalty.
Ms. Gu’s own conviction Sunday was no surprise, given that she had confessed during her Aug. 9 trial, which lasted less than eight hours. Puffy-faced, and bearing only a passing resemblance to the attractive, sharp-featured woman who had been frequently photographed alongside Mr. Bo and their playboy son Bo Guagua, she told the court she had suffered a “mental breakdown” after Mr. Heywood had threatened to harm her son during a dispute over a $22-million payment the Briton believed was owed to him.
She and her aide lured Mr. Heywood to a hotel in Chongqing, where Ms. Gu drank wine with Mr. Heywood until he fell ill and asked for water. According to the Xinhua report on the trial (no foreign reporters were allowed into the courtroom), Ms. Gu poured cyanide into the glass of water she gave him.
Some observers have questioned the official version of Ms. Gu’s statement to the court, which seems riddled with inconsistencies, particularly regarding the timeline of how Mr. Heywood came to know the Bo family, as well as the circumstances surrounding his death. Speculation that it was someone other than Ms. Gu who appeared in court was so widespread that the term “stand-in” was blocked on China’s heavily monitored social-networking sites following the trial.
“It’s a lie,” exiled journalist Jiang Weiping, who has written a critical book about Mr. Bo’s political career, said of Ms. Gu’s court statement. “Why wasn’t Wang Lijun called to testify?”
Such niceties don’t matter in politically charged case such as this. Ironically, Ms. Gu once admired the system that has now passed harsh judgment on her.
“China practices law in a different way than America; we don’t play with words,” she wrote in her 1998 book on the two legal systems, called “Winning a lawsuit in the U.S.” Under the Chinese system, she wrote, “you will be arrested, sentenced and executed as long as we know you killed someone.”