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Gu Kailai's sentence sheds light on Bo's fate

Publication Date : 31-08-2012


The murder trial and sentencing of Gu Kailai has raised concerns that a political comeback for her husband, disgraced Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, cannot be entirely dismissed.

Gu's exceptionally lenient treatment prompted such speculation. On August 20, she was sentenced to death - with a two-year reprieve - for intentional homicide. Under China's criminal law, this means she becomes eligible for various sorts of parole and may be set free after serving, at most, nine years in jail.

Many others convicted of a similar crime had been summarily executed. Recent examples include Shanghai's Yang Jia who stabbed six police officers to death after mistreatment by the police, and hawker Xia Junfeng of Shenyang who stabbed two city administration enforcers to death after a group of them beat him up severely.

In Gu's case, observers noted that several anomalous moves of the court suggested that the leniency came directly from the top.

Immediately after the trial, the judge issued a statement citing all the defence arguments that justified leniency for Gu. The prosecution arguments, in contrast, were mentioned only in passing.

Also, the medical report on her mental condition had said that although she suffered from many symptoms, she was capable of full criminal responsibility. But the court verdict twisted the emphasis to say that although she was capable of full criminal responsibility, she suffered from many mental ailments. This opened the way for leniency.

Both moves are extremely rare in Chinese court proceedings.

This explained why when Gu was asked by the court to state her view of the verdict, she expressed gratitude, saying that it showed the court was particularly respectful of law, facts and life.

Many feared that if Gu's life was spared, so would Bo's political career. For during the trial, he was not mentioned at all, let alone implicated.

Some suggested that this leniency was granted for the sake of minimising the adverse effect of the Bo couple's saga on the upcoming 18th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The congress is meant to map out future policy for the country and to elect the fifth-generation leadership for the next 10 years.

Its preparatory work was badly disrupted by the crisis involving the Bos and Wang Lijun, the former Chongqing police chief who fell out with Bo and whose flight to the United States consulate in Chengdu in February precipitated the crisis.

The saga was a major blow to the CCP in a number of ways.

First, it represented a major policy split at the very top. Bo's "Chongqing model" posed a threat to the reform and opening-up policy of the past three decades.

His model of development that emphasises social equity has drawn strong support from diehard Maoists and an increasing number of those who have been disenfranchised in the country's reform process.

Second, it unveiled Bo's ambition to replace the future president Xi Jinping. His plan was to enter the CCP's elite Politburo standing committee (PSC) at the 18th party congress, then to replace Xi by 2014, according to information divulged to the US by Wang.

This has resulted in a major shake-up of the country's police chiefs because Zhou Yongkang, a PSC member who commanded the police, is said to be closely allied with Bo.

Third, it brought to light the flagrant corruption of the senior CCP leadership. Gu ostensibly murdered British businessman Neil Heywood because he had threatened to harm her son Guagua after a business deal had gone bad.

But the real cause of the murder was believed to be his trying to exact too high a price for helping the Bo family to illicitly transfer huge amounts of money - said to be a staggering US$6 billion - out of the country.

Each one of these problems could bring huge damage to the CCP. To control the damage, the top authority sought to strictly limit Gu's case to an isolated criminal act with no political background or lateral connections. Thus, all the important ingredients of Gu's case, such as Bo and Wang's roles in the murder case, were not mentioned at all.

In this way the CCP could close an eye, for the time being, to the potential intra-party split that the Chongqing model posed. It could also allow Zhou - who is due to step down anyway at the party congress - to retire gracefully and naturally.

The leniency shown to Gu also pacified the diehard Maoists. This would go a long way to preventing them from disrupting the leadership transition process.

Already, some have collectively petitioned the party central to sack Premier Wen Jiabao in retaliation for the disgrace of Bo. Thus, an immediate crisis has been averted. But observers agree that without the removal of Bo from the party, this crisis is put off only temporarily.

As Bo was not implicated at all in Gu's case, and the whole incident was treated as if it were a non-political issue, the heaviest penalty he will receive will be to be stripped of all his posts in the party and government. But as long as he retains his party membership, there is a possibility of a comeback, given the strong Maoist sentiments in China. No one in China, apart from the Maoists, would like to see this happen.


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