The wacky and not-so-wacky conspiracy theories about China's trial of the century.
- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is FP's Asia editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington, D.C. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
On Aug. 9, Gu Kailai, the wife of deposed Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, stood trial for murder in a courtroom in the central Chinese city of Hefei. The 53-year-old Gu had been accused of poisoning Neil Heywood, a British businessman, in the trial of a century for China, and one inextricably linked to its biggest political scandal in decades. But after an anti-climactic, seven-hour trial, closed to all foreign media and observers with the exception of two British diplomats, Gu was pronounced guilty. On Aug. 20, the court sentenced Gu to death with 2-year reprieve; according to George Washington University law professor Donald Clarke, this means that “if she commits no new intentional crimes while in prison, that sentence will be commuted after two years to life imprisonment.”
The role of Chinese media, as Chinese officials have repeatedly said, is to be the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, and not as checks on the government’s power or purveyors of truth. But the case itself begged speculation. No witnesses testified publicly, and though the court improbably suggested that Gu had killed Heywood to protect her Harvard- and Oxford-educated son Bo Guagua — no one has convincingly established the basic motive for the murder.
No wonder the Chinese social media is alight with rumor and innuendo about Gu’s case. Because if the mentally unstable wife of a high-ranking Chinese official poisoned a British businessman to protect her son, isn’t anything possible? Here are the five most interesting theories floating around:
The Gu on TV was a body double
The most pervasive rumor states that a woman who looks like Gu replaced her during the trial. Maybe Gu is free; maybe she’s dead. One posting, noted by the Wall Street Journal, shows a photo of the handsome, angular Gu next to an image of the much heavier, fleshy-faced woman who stood in court. “Huge News,” the post proclaims. “Gu Kailai’s Body Double is the roughly 46-year-old Zhao Tianyun from Langfang [a city in central China’s Hebei province]. For the fairness and justice of society, the human flesh search engine has found the fake Gu Kailai.” Censors have since blocked the phrase ‘body double,’ and ‘Zhao Tianyun.’ Interestingly, the Financial Times cited “two security experts familiar with facial recognition software,” who said that “the person shown in state television footage of the courtroom was not Ms. Gu.”
Gu will be free within a few years
Gu might have gotten off lightly. The Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human rights organization that campaigns for better treatment and clemency for Chinese prisoners, wrote that Gu could serve just nine years: “The vast majority of sentences of death with two-year reprieve — an estimated 99.9 percent in 1995 — are commuted to life imprisonment after two years, and people serving life sentences are eligible for medical parole after seven years.”
But the more conspiratorial corners of the Chinese Internet believe she’ll be free sooner than that. The BBC’s Chinese-language service quoted an anonymous netizen from the wealthy province of Jiangsu saying, “After two years will probably have her sentenced reduced to life imprisonment, and then she can apply for medical parole.”
There was a surprising amount of disappointment on the Chinese Internet that Gu won’t be executed, A post on Boxun, an overseas Chinese news portal, wondered “Why did she just get death with reprieve?” Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate developer with almost 10 million followers on Sina Weibo, asked “Can you also get death with reprieve for directly murdering someone?” In a post on Tencent’s popular micro-blogging service that was widely picked up by Western and overseas Chinese media outlets, the well-known lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan asked: “Let us think — if it were an ordinary citizen who killed a foreigner for economic benefit, what would the verdict be?”
Frank Micelotta/Getty Images
Heywood was a spy
“If Bo Gu Kailai really did kill a spy, then both governments found a way out with this death with reprieve,” wrote Weibo user WestWingWife. The phrase ‘Gu Kailai spy’ is blocked on Sina Weibo. British and American media picked up on the spy angle in March as his case began to come to light; according to CNN, Heywood had advised for Hakluyt and Co., a consulting firm founded by former officers in the British spy agency MI6. But in April, British Foreign Secretary William Hague issued a rare letter denying the rumors: “Mr Heywood was not an employee of the British Government in any capacity.”
Still, at a time when sentiment against foreigners in running high in China, such rumors die hard. “If we’re going by my attitude, I think the sentencing was too harsh,” wrote one commentator in the online forum China Gate. “Who knows if Heywood was a spy; the possibility isn’t unreasonably low. When you kill a spy, not only should you not get sentenced to death, you should be commended.”
Bo will be freed
Bo hasn’t been seen since or heard from since March; top Chinese officials are likely still debating his future, and what crime to charge him with. By trying to focus the brunt of the suspicion on Gu, who has been accused of the tangible crime of murdering someone, allows for a veneer of party unity. In addition, Bo remains popular, both in Chongqing and nationally among leftists and possibly even some elite members in the party; putting him under house arrest but not in prison could be stabilizing. Political commentator Zhang Lifan told the South China Morning Post that Bo would likely escape criminal charges and the most severe punishment he is likely to face is having his party membership revoked.
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Gu Kailai’s case shows China follows the rule of law
On July 27, two weeks before the trial, the nationalist broadsheet the Global Times wrote, “We believe the court can live up to the expectations of the public and deliver a fair trial.”
The Strong Country forum, a bulletin board owned and operated by the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, published the official Xinhua version of the trial on Aug. 21. That official version quotes local Hefei resident Yan Lulu saying, “The People’s Court acted fairly and impartially.” Another commentator said, “I think the verdict was pretty fair.” But China’s legal system is utterly beholden to the Communist Party; the idea that this case proves China follows the rule of law is perhaps the most implausible explanation of all.