BEIJING — When Gu Kailai walks through courtroom doors to face charges of killing a British businessman, she’ll do so knowing that her fate already has been sealed.
As a 53-year-old lawyer and the wife of fallen Chinese political star Bo Xilai, Gu is familiar with how the system works. The Chinese Communist Party undoubtedly gave the green light to indict her on murder charges. When the trial begins, perhaps as early as next week, no judge in China is going to contradict that assertion.
Unless there’s a radical departure from established practice, the proceedings will serve as yet another reminder that while this nation has the trappings of government and a court system, it’s the Communist Party that wields ultimate power.
“There’s no use talking about frustrations. I just need to tell you the fact, the conclusion: China’s judiciary is not independent,” said Mo Shaoping, a prominent rights lawyer whose firm represented Liu Xiaobo, a dissident who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while sitting in a Chinese prison cell.
A report by the official news wire Xinhua last week announcing that Gu had been charged with murder said “the evidence is irrefutable and substantial.” That choice of words seemed to leave no space for further inquiry.
“We don’t even know whether the defense lawyers will be allowed to say the defendants are not guilty,” said Jerome Cohen, a professor at New York University’s School of Law and a renowned expert on the Chinese legal system. “In some cases they simply know, realistically, that would only infuriate the court, so they limit themselves to the discussion of the sentence.”
In a recent telephone interview, Cohen added: “This is going to put the Chinese system once again into the world spotlight, the Chinese criminal justice system, and she will become a poster girl for its failings.”
The case is caught up in the swirl of the biggest political scandal to shake Beijing in decades. Gu’s husband was seen until recently as having a good chance at a seat on the nation’s politburo standing committee, the very center of power here.
All that changed when a demoted police chief of the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, Wang Lijun, sought refuge at the nearest U.S. consulate in February. Wang allegedly fled Chongqing after confronting Bo, then the city’s Communist Party secretary, with his suspicions that Gu had committed murder.
The body of the dead man in question, 41-year-old Briton Neil Heywood, reportedly was found last November at the city’s Lucky Holiday Hotel. While authorities initially chalked up Heywood’s death to natural causes – overconsumption of alcohol or a heart complication – Wang is said to have later accused Gu of poisoning him, possibly because of a disagreement over a plan to transfer money out of the country.
Bo was stripped of his job as Chongqing’s party boss in March. In April, the party removed Bo from his seat on the politburo, and Xinhua said Gu and a household employee were suspected of killing Heywood and had been taken into custody.
Authorities have made no public statement on when the trial will begin; there’s been speculation it could start as soon as Tuesday.
Although the verdict is by all indications a fait accompli, the sentencing is very much in question.
A finding of guilt could result in anything from 10 years in prison to execution, and party leaders almost certainly have spent a lot of time thinking about the impact any penalty will have on public opinion. Harsh punishment without a convincing argument could provoke a backlash.
It’s also not known what the party’s propaganda calculations are for how to stage the trial. Would it be better to have a carefully choreographed event aired in public, keep it closed to all but a few or simply note the result in a subsequent state news item?
“With a case like this, with a lot of attention and sensitivity, the verdict is not going to be decided by a judge from the . . . intermediate people’s court,” Mo said.
That is, the party, not the jurist, will call the shots.
When it was reported over the weekend that Gu had accepted court-appointed counsel, after being denied the use of her own lawyers, some on the Twitter-like site Sina Weibo immediately voiced concern..
“Depriving the right to hire one’s own lawyers is equivalent to forcing the defendant to give up their own defense, and turning the trial into a lynching,” a user in Shanghai wrote.
The Global Times, an influential state-controlled tabloid, tried last week to curb that sort of sentiment: “We believe the court can live up to the expectations of the public and deliver a fair trial. This is a criminal case, and society should see it as one. The public should adopt this attitude.”
The trial will be in the city of Hefei in China’s eastern province of Anhui, more than 600 miles from Chongqing. It’s customary for high-profile official corruption cases to be tried outside the original jurisdiction to avoid interference by partisans of the accused.
However, the selection of Anhui raised eyebrows in some circles: It’s the home province of President Hu Jintao and Wang Shengjun, the head of the nation’s supreme court. The two men are seen as allies.
“I think it’s more than mere coincidence that Hefei was chosen, because . . . for many years (Wang) ran the political-legal system that controls the judges, the prosecutors and the police in that whole province,” Cohen said.
Cohen summed up the situation: “If you want to have a tightly scripted scenario, this is a way to do it.”
Gu’s Anhui-based legal team has had very little time to review the facts at hand. It probably will be afforded scant access to Gu before the trial, and their discussions are likely to be monitored.
Once the trial begins, Cohen said, prosecutors might follow the usual practice of reading witness testimony into the court record, meaning that defense attorneys have no ability to cross-examine.
Whatever becomes of Gu, the question of how the party will handle her husband looms. So far Bo hasn’t been charged with any crime. Xinhua said in April that he was “suspected of being involved in serious discipline violations.” That language usually suggests corruption.
The Communist Party, though, would need to approach the subject carefully. For instance, Bloomberg News published an analysis in April that found Gu’s sisters had amassed holdings worth at least $126 million. Whispers of corruption followed.
In June, Bloomberg examined the wealth of the extended family of Xi Jinping, the man slated to be China’s next president. The report was careful to say that the investments and assets it unearthed couldn’t be traced to Xi, and it didn’t include liabilities. Still, it listed real estate and company resources of about $450 million, plus an indirect stake in a separate firm worth more than $311 million – figures far higher than those of the Gu sisters.