Gu Kailai’s death sentence was expected and inevitable. The formerly powerful wife of the formerly super-powerful ex-Communist party boss of Chongqing, she will be given two years to demonstrate her reformation through good behavior in prison. If she behaves herself, her death sentence will probably commuted to life in prison. The Court of the People of Hefei found Gu guilty of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood, a mysterious character who’s relationship with Gu left more questions than answers.
The motive for the murder, done by poison, was apparently for the protection of her son, who had been threatened by Heywood. The sentence is the easiest way out for Beijing, wrapping up a scandal that has reached to the highest levels of the CCP and which needed to be resolved quickly, and in the cleanest way, before the next People’s Congress this fall. Gu’s husband Bo Xilai, a Shakesperean ghost who has been hovering over the entire affair, never entered the debate but his dismissal from the Party for “disciplinary reasons” has made it virtually impossible that he will be a candidate for China’s highest office. With his downfall, the neo-Maoist movement has been opposed to the changes in China’s social structure has lost significant ground. On the outside, the affair seems to have been settled with relative ease. Beijing has shown that it is able to deliver justice in a painful criminal case It gives the general public a demonstration of indifference towards the rich and powerful: those who break the law will be convicted, independent of their wealth or status. Gu Kailai was offered a speedy trial, she confessed, asked for the mercy of the court, and declared that she regretted what she had done. She did what she did to protect her son, and the court recognized her maternal instincts by suspending her death sentence. The victim was a foreign national, and justice has been served, as far as the international community is concerned. The embassy of the United Kingdom, given a rare invitation to observe the trial, has been appeased; their citizen was recognized as the victim of a crime, and the death sentence, rejected by most of the western world, was not carried out.
This may have been the most probable realistic solution, given the complex relationships that govern constitutional powers in China, but it nevertheless leaves behind it a series of unanswered questions of a legal, procedural, and political nature. The longtime business relationship between the Bo family and Heywood was never explained. A luxurious lifestyle, attendance at prestigious universities, and long periods of time spent abroad were all at the center of numerous journalistic investigations.
It is easy to imagine other players and Heywood’s role cannot be confined to a simple threat. Even Wang Lijun’s fate is unknown, despite his pivotal role in the scandal. It was the chief of police of Chongqing himself, until that moment Bo Xilai’s right-hand-man, who revealed the truth about Heywood’s murder. He did it haphazardly, hiding out in the US consulate, but his initiative landed him in custody with an uncertain destiny after Washington’s diplomats handed him back over to Chinese authorities.
Gu’s trial lasted less than eight hours, was carried out behind closed doors, no witnesses were called, and the accused, herself a successful attorney, was not allowed to choose her defense team. Her state appointed defenders certainly did not intend to fight; the basis for the trial was a confession. The limited coverage by the media highlighted the speed with which justice was carried out, the seriousness of the sentence, and the mercy of the judges.
There was no alternative solution. China could not have allowed itself to carry out public investigations on public lives. The risk of digging through the accumulation of wealth, capital hidden in foreign banks, the contradiction between stated ideals and true intentions, was too great. The indictments are increasing and so are the convictions, but they do nothing to stop an uncontrollable process of corruption and enrichment.
Equally on the rise is the discovery of crimes, amplified by new means of communication and the “people of the web.” The CCP calls for a “scientific style of working,” because it knows only too well that, internally, it hides other movements. In expectation of a new reorganization following the Congress this fall, the only option is to find a scapegoat to turn a social problem into an irrational crime. The court case is likely over, but the political case will need more time and will have less obvious outcomes, and certainly weaker motivations.