The trial of Gu Kailai has dramatically shattered the carefully cultivated image of China’s leaders

The private lives and business interests of top leaders are considered such a sensitive issue in China that long-standing directives from the Propaganda Department bar media outlets from even naming the children and spouses of the President and Premier. Few people in China are aware, for instance, that the sons of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao enjoy high-profile careers as the wealthy heads of State-run and private equity firms. Or, for that matter, that the relatives and associates of security czar and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang have wide interests in State-run oil companies, and those of former Premier Li Peng exert control over the lucrative power industry.

But in the past few days, the carefully controlled image that the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) top leaders have cultivated has been shattered in a courtroom in the central Chinese city of Hefei, the provincial capital of Anhui. Prosecutors, who have charged the wife of Politburo member Bo Xilai with murder, have provided a rare glimpse into a murky world of murder plots, mafia intrigue and multimillion dollar foreign investment deals at the highest levels of government.

Little regard for the law

In the day-long trial that concluded on Thursday, Gu Kailai, the wife of the purged former Chongqing Party Secretary, did not contest the charges that she had poured poison, procured from mafia groups with the help of provincial CPC officials, into the mouth of British businessman and family associate Neil Heywood. The CPC carefully managed the trial’s closed proceedings, which did not link Mr. Bo either to the November murder or to the subsequent cover-up.

However, a detailed account of the prosecutor’s case that emerged late last week has provided rare insights into the dealings of one of China’s most popular politicians, who was a key figure in the 25-member Politburo before his suspension in April. Part of the account was released by the official Xinhua news agency, while other details came from an Anhui student who sat in on the court’s proceedings. His account was independently verified by a lawyer who was present in the courtroom.

The details that emerged painted a picture of a world where influential politicians and local police chiefs held little regard for the law; a world where it appeared normal for the wife of a Party Secretary to walk into the office of a police chief in the middle of the day and discuss whether a faked shoot-out or poisoning was the best way to pull off a murder. The case has also brought to light the murky financial dealings of the Bo family. At the heart of the conflict with Heywood was a real estate investment project in France, prosecutors said. They revealed the involvement of Mr. Bo’s young son Guagua, who is a graduate student at Harvard, in business dealings in Europe along with one of China’s richest businessmen, Xu Ming — a revelation that is likely to raise troubling questions for the party about the often opaque ties between the families of provincial leaders and businessmen.

Threatening emails

Mr. Xu, who founded the Dalian Shide group and amassed a fortune in the northeastern port city of Dalian at a time when Mr. Bo served there as Party Secretary, has since been detained. Prosecutors said Bo Guagua introduced Mr. Xu to Heywood, who agreed to participate in a real estate project in France and another construction project in Chongqing which would have given him a massive £140 million (Rs.1,200 crore) windfall. When the project failed, Heywood is alleged to have sent threatening emails to Guagua, demanding 10 per cent of his expected share, or around £14 million. Heywood, the court was told, subsequently detained Guagua in his home in London to pressure Ms Gu.

“During those days last November, I suffered a mental breakdown after learning that my son was in jeopardy,” Ms Gu told the court according to Xinhua’s account, which did not disclose the business dealings. She also acknowledged that the case had “produced great losses to the Party and the country, for which I ought to shoulder the responsibility, and I will never feel at ease.” The court heard that Ms Gu was in an unbalanced state of mind — cited by her lawyers as a mitigating factor that might spare her the death sentence — and was being treated for anxiety and depression.

On Friday, four senior police officers in Chongqing who were alleged to have played a role in the cover-up stood trial. The former Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, is expected to stand trial in coming days in Chengdu, in southwestern Sichuan province, where the scandal first came to light when he fled to a U.S. Embassy in February following a falling out with Mr. Bo. Mr. Wang has been accused of treason, and will also have to answer questions about his knowledge of the murder plot.

Upcoming party congress

The CPC is keen to draw a line over the crisis before the 18th Party Congress, which finalises the leadership transition, convenes in October or November. Top leaders have spent the past week in closed meetings at the seaside resort of Beidaihe near Beijing. Deciding the fate of Mr. Bo is thought to be one of the matters under discussion, with the once influential “princeling” leader, in coming weeks, likely to be expelled from the party. The Bo Xilai affair is unlikely to affect the leadership transition: China’s leaders have appeared to close ranks and agree to take a tough stand on the ambitious politician.

The bigger challenge for the party is that the events of the past few days have been seen by many Chinese as a reflection of increasing corruption at the highest levels of government, a result of insufficient checks and balances and a lack of transparency. Bo Xilai, many believe, is not an exception. The CPC, however, has stressed the message that the case was simply a murder trial involving one errant leader’s wife, and not reflective of the system. Party newspapers have even argued that the case had shown “the resilience of the rule of law.”

A problem for the party is that few people appear to accept that point of view, judging by the tone of responses from thousands of netizens on microblogs in recent days and weeks. Veteran China scholar Perry Link, in a recent essay, highlighted one popular joke recently doing the rounds, criticising the official reluctance to acknowledge the problem. Wang Lijun is from a Mongolian minority group, and Ms Gu has been cited by media reports as holding a Singaporean resident card. “This whole case is about a Mongolian who ran to the Americans to expose a Singaporean who killed a Brit,” the joke said. “Nothing to do with China.”

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