China’s Fishy Show Trial

The verdict is in: Bo Xilai's wife is guilty. But the Chinese government's carefully crafted story is full of holes.


BEIJING — The verdict was as unsurprising as the backstory to the trial was shocking and convoluted: Guilty. On Monday morning, Gu Kailai, the 53-year-old wife of China’s dethroned political heavyweight Bo Xilai, was given a suspended death sentence for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood. The sentence will likely be commuted after two years to life in prison. The man said to have been her accomplice, 32-year-old Zhang Xiaojun, a former PLA soldier turned aide to the Bo household, was sentenced to nine years in prison.

According to the official narrative of the crime — the Aug. 9 courtroom proceedings were reported exclusively by China’s state-run Xinhua newswire, which acts as a coordinated organ of the state, not an independent body reporting on it — here is how the murder unfolded:

Heywood perished in room 1605 of the 16th building of Chongqing’s Lucky Holiday Hotel, a secluded yellow compound with views of the Yangtze River. The 41-year-old Briton checked in on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011, one day after he’d received a phone call in Beijing from Gu’s aide, Zhang, that she wished to meet with him in Chongqing for an unspecified reason. Since at least 2005, Heywood had been a business associate of the Bo family, facilitating connections with foreign companies and possibly more.

On Sunday, Gu visited his hotel room at around 9 p.m. She carried alcohol and tea, while Zhang waited in the hallway with two glass bottles: one contained a cyanide-laced poison, and the other drug capsules, which would be part of a cover-up story. Some time later, Heywood became so intoxicated drinking with Gu that he went to vomit in the bathroom. At Gu’s orders, Zhang then entered the room and helped to drag Heywood’s body to the bed. Heywood asked for water, but Gu dripped the cyanide compound into his mouth instead. Whether or not he registered what was happening to him was not specified. She later scattered the drug capsules nearby, perhaps to give the impression of an accidental overdose.

When Gu and Zhang left the room, she flipped on the door’s "Do Not Disturb" light and instructed hotel staff not to enter.

A sufficient does of cyanide inhibits the body’s cellular ability to utilize oxygen. Difficulty breathing and a sense of vertigo is followed by seizures and cardiac arrest. Death can occur within a few minutes. The victim’s skin will turn a telltale dark pink to red; often the corpse will smell faintly of an odor like bitter almonds.

Another day and evening passed before Tuesday morning, when officials from Chongqing’s Public Security Bureau arrived to inspect the body. In the course of their initial investigation, according to courtroom testimony, samples were collected of Heywood’s vomit and of blood from his heart. Gu, the wife of Chongqing’s top party boss, quickly emerged as a top suspect based on evidence gathered by the police, but the police department, then headed by Wang Lijun, decided to forge crime-scene interviews and other evidence pointing to another conclusion. Heywood’s body was cremated in Chongqing without a full autopsy. His official cause of death was listed as a heart attack triggered by excessive alcohol consumption.

As to motive, the Xinhua report states — with little concrete or critical explanation — that after a failed business deal between Gu and Heywood, Gu believed that an angry Heywood was a threat to the life of her son, Bo Guagua, then a student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. "This case has been like a huge stone weighing on me for more than half a year. What a nightmare. During those days last November, I suffered a mental breakdown after learning that my son was in jeopardy," Gu read aloud from prepared remarks in the course of her speedy seven-hour trial. "I must fight to my death to stop the craziness of Neil Heywood."

In the style of a Chinese self-criticism, Gu dutifully added: "The case has produced great losses to the party and the country, for which I ought to shoulder the responsibility, and I will never feel at ease … I solemnly tell the court that in order to maintain the dignity of the law, I will accept and calmly face any sentence and I also expect a fair and just court decision."

That’s the official story, but aspects of this account strain credulity.

Heywood’s vomit sample was said to contain cyanide ions, but the trial account holds that he vomited before being poisoned. Friends of Heywood have said he was a very light drinker, not someone given to binge drinking in a hotel room. The chain of custody of the blood sample extracted at the crime scene — as well as other evidence — is in doubt. (All of the material evidence from the crime scene — Heywood’s blood and vomit samples, as well as DNA material on bottle caps allegedly linked to Gu and Zhang — had to have been gathered, stored for several months, and transferred to court authorities by officials within Chongqing’s public security bureau, which the trial also alleges are guilty of earlier fraud and cover-up.)

Perhaps the largest unresolved questions concern motive. The Chinese public is being asked to swallow the account of a worried mother who committed murder to defend the life of her only son — then residing on the campus of an elite university in the United States — against a British man in Beijing with no prior record of violent crime.

Experts testified that Gu had received past treatment for insomnia, anxiety, depression, and paranoia. They said she had become dependent on "sedative hypnotic drugs." But insanity was not used as a defense; rather, Gu was simply alleged to have "weakened" willpower to control her actions.

Upon what evidence do all these claims rest?

If members of the British diplomatic community were able to make their own independent assessment, no one has spoken of it. In a statement to the Wall Street Journal‘s Jeremy Page, the British embassy said simply: "We welcome the fact that the Chinese authorities have investigated the death of Neil Heywood, and tried those they identified as responsible. We consistently made clear to the Chinese authorities that we wanted to see the trials in this case conform to international human rights standards and for the death penalty not to be applied." An embassy official told the Journal that Foreign Secretary William Hague would not be available to comment on the trial process or whether it was free from political interference.

Most likely no one outside of China’s legal system was granted access to inspect (in any independent and un-harassed fashion) the evidence described by Xinhua as irrefutable. No foreign reporters were even allowed inside the courtroom on the day of the trial. Chinese media has reported that public security officials "conducted 394 interrogations of the witnesses and people involved in the case and put together 212 evidence documents totaling 1,468 pages in 16 volumes," but one must take on faith that such evidence was not, like the false interviews initially recorded by Chongqing’s police department, concocted.

"The court is simply playing the part," Jerome Cohen, an expert on the Chinese legal system at New York University School of Law, told Bloomberg Businessweek. "They want to make it look like the court is making the decision." Cohen observed that the government has taken pains to at least to replicate the details of a court of law. For starters, Gu and Zhang had lawyers. According to Cohen, in 70 percent of all Chinese criminal cases, defendants don’t have attorney representation.

No wonder, then, that the conviction rate in 2009 for rate for first- and second-instance criminal trials was 99.9 percent, according to the China Law Yearbook, a reference series published by the China Law Society. (That year, 997,872 criminal defendants were tried in China; just 1,206 were acquitted.) Moreover, as the U.S. State Department’s 2010 human-rights report notes: "In many politically sensitive trials, courts handed down guilty verdicts with no deliberation immediately following proceedings. Courts often punished defendants who refused to acknowledge guilt with harsher sentences than those who confessed. The appeals process rarely resulted in overturned convictions." In format at least, the Gu trial has the appearance of being more just.

One way to think of the Gu courtroom drama is as a show trial with two purposes: to make Gu look like a murderess (which she may be, although for different motives), and to make the Chinese legal system appear to be functioning fairly (which it almost certainly is not).

After all, the appearance of evidence and deliberation is just that — appearance. As Donald Clarke, a professor at George Washington University Law School, wrote on his insightful Chinese Law Prof Blog: "I believe that this verdict was settled beforehand at the highest level — the Standing Committee of the Politburo — and that it was impossible that anything could come out at the trial that would upset that conclusion."

The trial’s most notable feature may be its striking omission. There was no recorded mention of Bo Xilai, either his whereabouts or his knowledge of events. But surely the mafia-like state of Chongqing politics — in which Bo’s strong, ruthless, and ubiquitous personal and party networks enabled everything he accomplished, from real-estate deals to cracking down on crime — constituted the essential background drama. Writing in Caixin, editor in chief Hu Shuli points out that Gu’s "brazen sense of immunity from the law was supported by a network of high-level officials in the Chongqing Ministry of Public Security … policemen involved in the cover-up look more like Bo’s personal flunkeys than public law enforcement officers."

In other words, the aim of Gu’s much publicized trial and guilty verdict was likely not to protect the safety of foreigners, but to draw the spotlight away from Bo Xilai and the privileged inner workings of Communist Party networks. But if you look closely, the incomplete evidence we have casts a spotlight back on precisely what we’re meant to forget: how absolute power corrupts.

Christina Larson is an award-winning science and technology journalist based in Beijing. @larsonchristina

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