Murder on the Orient Express

One of the most sensational and scrutinised trials in recent years in China is over. Gu Kailai, accomplished lawyer,  wife of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, was found guilty of  “intentional homicide” of British businessman Neil Heywood, receiving a suspended death sentence.

When Neil Heywood died in Chongqing on the 14th of November 2011 the world took little notice. An ambiguous figure with links (financial and otherwise) to Bo and Gu, Heywood had kept a low profile. An initial official investigation into his death found that Heywood had died from excessive consumption of alcohol. While the explanation for his death was far from convincing (friends report that he was not a heavy drinker)  circumstances placed the death in a different context (friends had also reported that he had fallen out with Gu and had been “summoned” to Chongqing). Heywood’s family remained silent. His Chinese wife and two children stayed in Beijing; their security providing a strong disincentive to open questioning of the official explanation of Heywood’s death.

The case was not left there. On the 26th of March 2012, a few weeks after Bo had been dramatically removed from office, the British government announced that it had officially asked China to reopen the investigation into Heywood’s death. This may have been in response to rumours about Gu and Heywood. By then Chinese microblogs were awash with rumours that Gu had murdered Heywood. On the 10th of April (the same day that Bo was suspended from the Politburo ), authorities announced that Gu and an aide, Zhang Xiaojun were chief suspects in the case. Another foreigner with connections to Gu, Frenchman Patrick Devillers was detained in Cambodia, later travelling to China on 18th of July as a witness in the investigation. Devillers had substantial business links to Gu.

On the 26th of July it was announced that Gu and Zhang had been formally charged with the murder of Heywood. State media commentaries on the matter called the evidence against them “irrefutable”. On the 9th of August, the trial began in the Hefei City Intermediate People’s Court, Anhui Province. The location for the trial is interesting: Hefei is over 900 kilometres south of Beijing and the court rooms are compact. In such an obscure location the significance of the trial was effectively downplayed with the size of the courts denying access to members of the foreign media. In the end the trial was over in eight hours. No witnesses gave testimony (although this is not uncommon in the Chinese legal system) and Gu, apart from quibbling over a few details, accepted responsibility for the murder. The court heard that Heywood had threatened Gu’s son, so she got him drunk, then poured poison into his mouth. By presenting the circumstances along these lines Gu is cast in almost sympathetic light by the authorities. She acted only to protect her son. On the 20th of August Gu was sentenced to death with a two year reprieve. This is effectively a suspended sentence, meaning she will likely spend a considerable amount of time in prison. Zhang received a nine year sentence for aiding the murder.  Along with the prison sentence Gu was permanently stripped of her political rights, preventing her from joining a political party, voting or standing for election for the rest of her life. Ironically, Gu has received the same punishment as Mao Zedong’s widow Jiang Qing who was put on trial at the end of the Cultural Revolution. The entire process received coverage from the Chinese media, but any direct association of Gu with Bo was assiduously avoided. His role as her husband was constantly reemphasised each time her name was mentioned. In mainland China married women typically do not adopt their husband’s surname. But Chinese media reports refer to her not as Gu, but as Bogu, combining her surname with Bo’s. While this is common in Hong Kong it is extremely rare on the mainland. Its use is one of the more puzzling aspects of the case. It is likely an attempt by the regime to subtly associate Bo with the murder conviction of his wife.

Ultimately, it is likely that Gu did indeed murder Heywood. The official story borders on the ridiculous. The full brief of evidence has not been released publically; until it is, all we can do is speculate about details. Beyond the politics of the trial (and the lack of transparency in the Chinese justice system that it highlights) perhaps the most interesting feature to come out of the entire matter is the reaction of the Chinese people. Rumours have spread across the internet that Gu had been replaced by a body double, or that Neil Heywood never existed. On the whole, many have seen the trial with a great deal of cynicism. With the trial of his wife out of the way, we now await the fate of Bo Xilai.