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Published on August 15th, 2012 | by Harry Evans
Image © [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="566"] Bo Xilai, now under considerable scrutiny © 美国之音 张楠[/caption]   The trial of Gu Kailai and her aide Zhang Xiaojun that has just adjourned has been keenly watched for several of its characteristics. These characteristics include: Gu Kailai being the wife of maverick, populist politician Bo Xilai; the victim, Neil Heywood, is a foreigner; the trial is being held behind closed doors in China, months before a party leadership shakeup. The facets of this case are what make it of key interest in the domestic, business and international worlds, and may help us finally crack the puzzle that is the Chinese leadership. First, some background to the case. Neil Heywood was found dead in 2011, originally stated by Chinese authorities to have been from overconsumption of alcohol. This was accepted by the family, who proceeded to hold the funeral. However, following renewed interest, and whistleblowing from a Chinese microblogger, the UK asked China to reopen the investigation of Mr Heywood's death. In connection with the death, Ms Gu and her aide Mr Zhang have been charged. The story that has emerged is that Ms Gu invited Mr Heywood to a hotel where she proceeded to get him drunk, to the point that he was throwing up. Then, under the guise of providing him with water, Mr Zhang passed her the poison that she would use to kill Mr Heywood. The alleged motive (which may also be used as a plea for leniency) was that Mr Heywood had threatened her son, possibly over a business deal, though the details of this have not been released. At any rate, it is clear that Mr Heywood and Ms Gu have had economic links and were once friends before the tragedy occurred. However, what has been released in the press is only a fraction of what is important with this case. Mr Bo, the husband of Ms Gu, is the party chief of Chongqing in South China. In the past he has been pegged as a possibility for promotion to the party leadership, but this has very quickly been a shattered dream. After the trial is over, he will very likely see his own part in this heavily scrutinised and examined for any wrongdoing. Mr Bo is still widely liked by the people of Chongqing, despite this, but his reputation in other areas will be severely tarnished. It is likely that the aspects of the party leadership will do everything in their power to put an end to Mr Bo's upward arc, as it is said that he is disliked by them. It may be they feel threatened by his character or his popular appeal; either way, it is the opportunity of a lifetime to get rid of him for good, despite it being unclear exactly what role, if any, he has played in the murder. The trial has raised a question mark for how foreign businessmen are to be treated in China. It has always been the case that the Chinese government has been sceptical of foreign involvement, but a neo-liberal backlash has forced a more open market. With this, has come hordes of investors looking for gold in an untapped mine. This scandal has aroused fears over how business-friendly China is for two reasons. Firstly, whatever the motive, there is an element of the Chinese elite that has deemed itself above the law with regards to internationals. It may be seen as just a small part of the elite that has this attitude, but the signal is not a positive one, and may make investors think twice about travelling to China. Even if this is only an isolated incident, there may be considerable worry over how the trial has been examined. There were numerous cover-ups involved in the trial, from the Deputy Police Chief of Chingqong (an ally of the Gu-Bo family), and since the trial has started the focus has switched from a murder to an act of self-defence. The mitigating circumstance of the threats against Ms Gu's son are both vague and suspicious. It has not been made clear what the nature of the threat was, or indeed, if it was reasonable to regard this as sufficient grounds for premeditated murder. The trial has been altered to display a Chinese woman protecting her son from a Westerner, and perhaps there is just cause for this, but the veil over her motives suggest otherwise, and that this has been an attempt to focus the negative on an outsider. This is a mistake, and will have detrimental effects on the perception of China as a fertile free market for investors. Lastly, we may not see the true ramifications of this until the party re-shuffle later this year at the 18th Party Congress which will decide who will constitute the new Politburo Standing Committee, as well as announce the new Premier and President. It is considered a foregone conclusion that the new President will be the current VP, Xi Jinping, but there are aspects of the politics that are not foregone conclusions. It is apparently obvious that Bo Xilai will not return to the fold, since his membership of the Politburo was suspended as a procedure in the investigation. We will not know how the mix up will affect Chinese politics and relations, but it is apparent from the Gu-Bo scandal, as well as from other recent developments that the Chinese political party is not the opaque, top-down machine it was once assumed to be. There are dissidents and in-fighting, people vying for power and glory. As the doors remain closed following the trial of Ms Gu, we see that the lid on Chinese politics is slowly being prised off.

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Shots Across the Bo

Bo Xilai, now under considerable scrutiny © 美国之音 张楠

 

The trial of Gu Kailai and her aide Zhang Xiaojun that has just adjourned has been keenly watched for several of its characteristics. These characteristics include: Gu Kailai being the wife of maverick, populist politician Bo Xilai; the victim, Neil Heywood, is a foreigner; the trial is being held behind closed doors in China, months before a party leadership shakeup. The facets of this case are what make it of key interest in the domestic, business and international worlds, and may help us finally crack the puzzle that is the Chinese leadership.

First, some background to the case. Neil Heywood was found dead in 2011, originally stated by Chinese authorities to have been from overconsumption of alcohol. This was accepted by the family, who proceeded to hold the funeral. However, following renewed interest, and whistleblowing from a Chinese microblogger, the UK asked China to reopen the investigation of Mr Heywood’s death.

In connection with the death, Ms Gu and her aide Mr Zhang have been charged. The story that has emerged is that Ms Gu invited Mr Heywood to a hotel where she proceeded to get him drunk, to the point that he was throwing up. Then, under the guise of providing him with water, Mr Zhang passed her the poison that she would use to kill Mr Heywood. The alleged motive (which may also be used as a plea for leniency) was that Mr Heywood had threatened her son, possibly over a business deal, though the details of this have not been released. At any rate, it is clear that Mr Heywood and Ms Gu have had economic links and were once friends before the tragedy occurred.

However, what has been released in the press is only a fraction of what is important with this case. Mr Bo, the husband of Ms Gu, is the party chief of Chongqing in South China. In the past he has been pegged as a possibility for promotion to the party leadership, but this has very quickly been a shattered dream. After the trial is over, he will very likely see his own part in this heavily scrutinised and examined for any wrongdoing. Mr Bo is still widely liked by the people of Chongqing, despite this, but his reputation in other areas will be severely tarnished. It is likely that the aspects of the party leadership will do everything in their power to put an end to Mr Bo’s upward arc, as it is said that he is disliked by them. It may be they feel threatened by his character or his popular appeal; either way, it is the opportunity of a lifetime to get rid of him for good, despite it being unclear exactly what role, if any, he has played in the murder.

The trial has raised a question mark for how foreign businessmen are to be treated in China. It has always been the case that the Chinese government has been sceptical of foreign involvement, but a neo-liberal backlash has forced a more open market. With this, has come hordes of investors looking for gold in an untapped mine. This scandal has aroused fears over how business-friendly China is for two reasons. Firstly, whatever the motive, there is an element of the Chinese elite that has deemed itself above the law with regards to internationals. It may be seen as just a small part of the elite that has this attitude, but the signal is not a positive one, and may make investors think twice about travelling to China. Even if this is only an isolated incident, there may be considerable worry over how the trial has been examined. There were numerous cover-ups involved in the trial, from the Deputy Police Chief of Chingqong (an ally of the Gu-Bo family), and since the trial has started the focus has switched from a murder to an act of self-defence. The mitigating circumstance of the threats against Ms Gu’s son are both vague and suspicious. It has not been made clear what the nature of the threat was, or indeed, if it was reasonable to regard this as sufficient grounds for premeditated murder. The trial has been altered to display a Chinese woman protecting her son from a Westerner, and perhaps there is just cause for this, but the veil over her motives suggest otherwise, and that this has been an attempt to focus the negative on an outsider. This is a mistake, and will have detrimental effects on the perception of China as a fertile free market for investors.

Lastly, we may not see the true ramifications of this until the party re-shuffle later this year at the 18th Party Congress which will decide who will constitute the new Politburo Standing Committee, as well as announce the new Premier and President. It is considered a foregone conclusion that the new President will be the current VP, Xi Jinping, but there are aspects of the politics that are not foregone conclusions. It is apparently obvious that Bo Xilai will not return to the fold, since his membership of the Politburo was suspended as a procedure in the investigation. We will not know how the mix up will affect Chinese politics and relations, but it is apparent from the Gu-Bo scandal, as well as from other recent developments that the Chinese political party is not the opaque, top-down machine it was once assumed to be. There are dissidents and in-fighting, people vying for power and glory. As the doors remain closed following the trial of Ms Gu, we see that the lid on Chinese politics is slowly being prised off.


About the Author

Harry Evans

Harry is a recent Philosophy graduate from the University of York. He is taking a Master’s in European Studies next year at UCL and has a particular interest in Scandinavian politics and economy. His time is currently spent undertaking an internship, researching and writing a history of the University of York Philosophy department. At University, he was editor of the student Philosophy journal, and has been published by the Club of PEP journal. Harry is hoping to make a career in International Relations and Journalism, and writes for Catch21 in this capacity. For more information and updates follow @hevans567 or find him on LinkedIn. You can also read more from this author on their personal blog.



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