Cold-blooded killer or scapegoat, China’s Lady MacBeth or over-protective mother – Gu Kailai remains an enigma as she is tried for murder in a case that has shaken the ruling Communist Party and placed its secretive world of political privilege under intense scrutiny.
The wife of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai was tried last week in the central city of Hefei.
There is little doubt a pliant court will find her guilty of murdering Neil Heywood, the British businessman who helped get her son into exclusive boarding school Harrow and then into Oxford University.
Her chances of escaping the death penalty rest on the idea that she feared Heywood somehow threatened her son – an argument many Chinese might find a plausible reason for sparing Gu, a member of the party’s red elite.
“She was convinced her husband’s political rivals are out to assassinate her husband and son,” a source with close ties to the Bo family said.
The full story of what happened, and why, is unlikely to come out in the party-controlled court or in the media. The suspects have had no chance to comment or defend themselves in a case wreathed in secrecy and innuendo.
Bo’s career came to a crashing halt after the top policeman in his power base, the city of Chongqing, fled to the nearest American consulate in February, claiming that Bo had covered up Heywood’s murder.
Heywood was believed to have been poisoned in a hotel in Chongqing in November.
Within weeks of the allegations emerging, Bo, 62, was ousted from the elite Politburo, sacked from his post as party chief in Chongqing and placed in custody.
Gu, who is in her early 50s, was charged with murder along with family aide Zhang Xiaojun.
But many in China read the whole drama as a classic political purge.
It is a long fall from grace for Gu, one of modern China’s first law graduates and the daughter of a famous general. She once wrote about her success defending Chinese companies in a US court.
Gu had become increasingly depressed and isolated as her charismatic husband campaigned for a spot in the new generation of Communist Party leadership that takes over this autumn, sources who know her said.
Meanwhile, other family sources said she also had cancer. None of the reports could be verified.
Police sources initially claimed Heywood had demanded a cut of a large sum of money being moved overseas, portraying Gu as the greedy wife who translated her husband’s connections into dollars.
But the party may have decided it was unwise to invite public scrutiny of well-connected families’ finances.
Instead, the indictment hints at a personal motive that may play better with the public – and help reduce Gu’s sentence.
China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency said she killed Heywood to protect her son, Bo Guagua, who graduated this year from Harvard’s Kennedy School and is believed to still be in the US.
“That could be a motive to, say, give her a suspended death sentence. It could be life, it could be 15 years,” said Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University. It is not clear what threat Heywood could have posed to the younger Bo.
The British man’s friends described him as a devoted family man who was discreet about his long friendship with Gu and her son.
His family has not commented in detail about the case.
Heywood’s wife and two children still live in Beijing.
No one has offered any similar defence for Gu’s co-defendant Zhang.
Despite enjoying great privilege, Gu lost her professional identity as her husband’s political career flourished.
In China, most of the wives of high-ranking cadres fade discreetly into the background, while many high-ranking women are unmarried.
Bo and Gu met in the early 1980s and were married in 1986, news reports have said. Bo, who was divorced at the time, has a son from his first marriage.
Bo, Gu and Guagua – the couple’s only child – were unusual in seeking the spotlight.
Her much-photographed short, chic haircut contrasted with the frumpy look favoured by most top leaders’ wives.
When Bo governed the port city of Dalian in the 1990s, Gu ran a law firm and consultancy.
Journalist Jiang Weiping – later imprisoned for documenting corruption in Bo’s circle – claimed that her firms had channelled bribes from Taiwanese and foreign investors.
She went by the English name, “Horus”, referring to the falcon-headed Egyptian god of war, and depicted herself as a fearless attorney in her book, Uphold Justice in America.
Bo’s rising political star forced her to stop working to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest, but the decision seemed to have taken a toll on her.
“Ever since she stepped down, she lives like a hermit and doesn’t attend any social events. When Dad wants her to come to events, she won’t,” Bo Guagua said in a 2009 interview with the Chengdu Evening News, later expunged from its website.
“I can understand, she is most unwilling to exist in Dad’s shadow, and lose herself. Right now she reads all day and studies comparative literature.”
For a time, Gu channelled her considerable energy into her son’s education, tapping Heywood to help get him into school and moving with the boy to Britain.
On her orders, Heywood pulled strings with British expats in Beijing to help get the youngster into Oxford, said one woman who met him then.
While in Britain, Gu attempted to go into business, selling promotional hot-air balloons to Dalian and other Chinese cities. Heywood assisted with the arrangements.
She registered a company in the south of England with French architect Patrick Devillers, who left Dalian and divorced his Chinese wife around the same time.
He is now in Beijing, after having been detained by Cambodian police on China’s request, and is co-operating with the investigation.
Both Bo and Gu come from pedigreed revolutionary families, with connections that brought power and wealth.
Elite Chinese live in a world of infighting and suspicion, enduring repeated corruption probes, phone tapping and worries about betrayal.
Gu’s increasing paranoia after she returned to China could have intensified in the febrile atmosphere in Chongqing, where the couple moved in 2007.
Bo launched a bloody “strike-black” anti-mafia campaign against alleged gangsters, featuring lurid tales of murder and corruption. He told journalists in 2009 the gangsters would have tried to assassinate him if it weren’t for his top cop, Wang Lijun – the man who later fled to the US Consulate after telling Bo his wife had murdered Heywood.
Bo promoted choral songs from the Cultural Revolution, a dog-eat-dog period of political chaos in which his mother died in the custody of fanatical Red Guards.
For Gu, the songs would have revived memories of a time when her parents were purged and she and her sisters were left to fend for themselves.
Her behaviour became particularly unstable around the time of Heywood’s death in November. She strode into a meeting of police officials wearing the uniform of a major-general – the same rank as her father. In a rambling speech she told the startled audience she was on a mission to protect Wang.
Less than three months later, he accused her of murder.
The trial was held on Thursday and news reports have said that the verdict will be announced at a later date.
Bo has not been named as a suspect in the murder case. But party authorities are investigating him separately and he could also face trial at a later date. – Reuters