MUCH LIKE Moscow’s show trial of the Pussy Riot band, China’s seven-hour trial of Gu Kailai – a formal verdict will come later – had, in reality, little to do with the content of the charges, and a lot to do with the respective regimes sending out strong political messages to different forms of dissent. In the former case, simply that it will be crushed; in the latter, that this autumn’s political transition in the leadership will not include a role for purged former communist party politburo member Bo Xilai, Gu’s husband, and will largely sideline his “leftist” allies.
Bo, who led a populist revival of a Mao cult in the city of Chongqing as party boss and a rising national star, finds his career cut short in classical Maoist fashion. Hoist, it might be said, on his own petard. In a totalitarian society without democratic channels for managing political succession smoothly, the political marginalisation of a defeated faction has to take on another, often brutal, form behind a thinly veiled guise of “judicial” process. Notable were the absence of economic charges concerning the couple’s unaccounted-for wealth – that would have led to questions about others on all sides of the leadership divide.
In another time, both Bo and Gu, and several acolytes, would simply have been sentenced to death, probably after an elaborate exercise in chest-beating “self-criticism”. Today she is likely to escape that fate for a life term, most observers believe, in part because China is aware how closely it is being watched internationally and wants to present an image of reform and modernisation, even democratisation. And, more importantly, to placate her husband’s party faction which will continue to retain a significant influence after the party congress.
Not that Gu may not actually have murdered British businessman Neil Heywood, a secret business partner of the couple. According to Xinhua news service she confessed that “after Heywood was drunk, vomited and asked for water, she put the poison she had prepared beforehand, and which Zhang had brought along to the hotel room, into Heywood’s mouth, which led to Heywood’s death.” The plausibility of the confession is meant to be enhanced by the detail. And it might be true. But it is just as likely that the plea bargain solicited a mutually acceptable piece of fictitious “verbalising”.
The trial is widely seen as a prelude to a possible prosecution of Bo, held for violating party discipline, an accusation that covers corruption, abuse of power and other misdeeds. Like Gu, his guilt will not be at issue.