Homicide not corruption likely focus of trial

Wed, Aug 8, 2012, 01:00

GU KAILAI, wife of purged Communist Party princeling Bo Xilai, goes on trial tomorrow for poisoning British businessman Neil Heywood. However, China’s trial of the century will be swift after a secret deal that spares her the executioner’s bullet in order to preserve the party’s grip on power.

Sources said a deal was struck a month ago where Ms Gu, once a top lawyer, will admit intentional homicide, but the trial will ignore “economic crimes” such as corruption and financial misappropriation.

The absence of economic crimes is a signal that Beijing does not intend to criminally prosecute her husband, the former Chongqing party head, who still has support from powerful factions within the party.

“They will have a very speedy trial and minimise the exposure of economic crimes. This means Bo will be left out of the criminal process and will only face punishments within the framework of party discipline,” said Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political scientist at Hong Kong’s City University.

A verdict in the obscure Hefei People’s Intermediate Court, in rural Anhui province is expected to come quickly.

Mr Heywood’s death in a Chongqing hotel room was initially blamed on alcohol poisoning but the authorities subsequently accused Ms Gu and an employee of poisoning him.

The manner of the case always had Ms Gu “guilty until proven guilty”, with the state news agency Xinhua announcing “the evidence is irrefutable and substantial”. Nearly everyone who goes through China’s court system is found guilty.

What now looks likely is that she will escape the death penalty and instead be given a lengthy jail sentence, which will appease the couple’s critics and political enemies without alienating their powerful supporters in the Politburo.

The pretext for not executing her is a lack of significant evidence.

According to prosecution sources quoted by the South China Morning Post, the only physical evidence prosecutors had was a piece of Mr Heywood’s heart removed by former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun before his body was hastily cremated in November. No autopsy was carried out. The sources described Ms Gu as “gracious” and “relaxed” during questioning, which could mean she has reached a deal that provides the best outcome for her family.

Mr Bo’s hubris, the arrogant way he wielded power in Chongqing and his dangerously popular charisma, set him on a collision course with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

The party wants to keep any forms of destabilising disruption to a minimum, especially with a leadership transition looming at the 18th Communist Party congress in the autumn. Nerves in Zhongnanhai, the power stronghold at Beijing’s heart, have been jangled by broader stability issues over pollution and the slowing economy.

From the Chinese authorities’ point of view, the deal is beneficial because it separates the case from the party congress and the leadership succession process.

The party’s leaders have gathered in Beidaihe, a holiday resort on the coast near Beijing, for its annual round of political horse trading.

This year’s Beidaihe meeting will be tougher than usual, as this is the most dangerous period in a single-party government, when factions grapple furiously for influence while trying to secure a smooth transition of power.

It looks very likely that Mr Hu, who will hand over power to Xi Jinping at the congress, has scored some crucial political points for agreeing not to pursue charges against Mr Bo. These include holding on to leadership of the military for a couple of years after he steps down as party secretary, which would give him time to cement his legacy.

“It looks like Hu Jintao has secured some concessions for his preferred line-up after the congress, or support perhaps for retaining leadership of the Central Military Commission for two years after he gives up other leadership posts,” said Mr Cheng.

If a deal had not been reached, Mr Bo would have faced graft charges for building up a big fortune from corrupt practices, but top communist leaders do not want too much attention drawn to personal fortunes at a time of public scrutiny.

And having great wealth is not a crime for communist leaders –a recent Bloomberg report showed how the family of Xi Jinping, the anointed successor to Mr Hu, had millions of dollars in assets. But what Mr Bo and Ms Gu did was to flaunt the wealth, especially through their son Guagua, whose high-life exploits at Oxford featured on Facebook – he likes to drive sports cars and squire debutantes at society events. Other party bigwigs are discreet about their riches.

“Over the past year, Bo Xilai has rocked system and it is still wobbling. And the Heywood case raises far-ranging questions about China’s governing system,” China expert Perry Link blogged in the New York Review of Books.

Mr Link has pointed out just how little real information has been formally established, but in this game of smoke and mirrors, rumours swiftly become facts. Commentators who routinely doubt the Communist Party when it comes to charges levelled against activists like Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng and Ai Weiwei, seem happy to accept the charges levelled against Ms Gu.

Much of the evidence is based on testimony by Wang Lijun, Mr Bo’s right-hand man who had been his police chief in Chongqing and who had worked for him in Dalian since 1992.

Four days after he was suddenly fired, he sought sanctuary at the US consulate in Chengdu, 200 miles away, and here he allegedly offered information to US officials on the Heywood case. Again, there is no official confirmation from the US about what was discussed.

While the Heywood death went mostly unnoticed when it took place in November, it suddenly emerged as a possible way to oust Mr Bo, by enmeshing his wife in a sordid murder plot.

There are parallels with the fate of Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, who was blamed for starting the Cultural Revolution, even though that period of ideological frenzy in the 1960s and 1970s unfolded very much according to Mao’s plans to test the limits of his authority.

Official reports have called her “Bogu Kailai”, using an unusual name that compounds her family name and his. In China, women usually retain their family surnames on marrying.

The deal also means Chinese authorities can be seen to be working within the rule of law, both for a domestic audience – the wife of an important person, even a leader, goes to court just like anybody else – and for Britain’s requests for justice for Mr Heywood.

UK foreign office staff will be allowed to witness the trial, although the British government has consistently stressed that the details are very much a Chinese matter.

Old Harrovian a quintessential Englishman

NEIL HEYWOOD, the Briton whose mysterious death sparked China’s biggest political scandal in three decades, was a fluent Chinese speaker who dressed impeccably and perfectly fitted the Chinese vision of what an Englishman should look like.

He drove a Jaguar, complete with 007 number plate, he had friends in the aristocracy and one of his ancestors was Britain’s consul-general in the northern port city of Tianjin from 1929 to 1935.

Heywood (41) worked as an adviser to many companies, including Manganese Bronze, which makes London cabs, Aston Martins and Rolls-Royce. He was also a corporate researcher.

Mr Heywoods death in a Chinese hotel room last November was initially blamed on excessive alcohol consumption.

Chinese police suspect the old Harrovian was poisoned in Chongqing on the orders of Gu Kailai, wife of the city’s ousted Communist Party boss, Bo Xilai. Ms Gu goes on trial tomorrow.

Mr Bo, who was bidding for a seat on the all-powerful standing committee of the Politburo in Beijing, has been purged by the Communist Party, while the scandal has exposed deep divisions within China’s ruling elite.

Mr Heywood helped Mr Bo’s son get into his own alma mater and, according to leaked Chinese government reports, was used as a conduit to sneak money out of the country in violation of currency controls.

The leaks have painted a picture of him as a money launderer, but there are gaps in this story, the main one being that he did not appear to have been very wealthy.

He appears to have left his wife, Wang Lulu, and their two children in a financially uncertain situation. A former business associate had to pay for the family’s flight tickets to attend his funeral in London.

His suburban house in Beijing was on a mortgage.

Whatever the outcome tomorrow, Mr Heywood’s family is not optimistic of a fair and just outcome. His mother Ann Heywood told the Los Angeles Times: “There are no human rights in China, of which I’m totally aware.” CLIFFORD COONAN