China’s Case of the Century: Not Quite O.J., But Close

China’s case of the century, the legal thriller known as the Bo Xilai–Gu Kailai–Wang Lijun–Neil Heywood case, wrapped up last week with a courtroom finale. As a brief reminder, Bo Xilai was the popular, populist mayor of Chungking (preferred Wade-Giles: Ch’ung-ch’ing; quasi-nationalist Pinyin: Chongqing) and a seemingly sure bet for selection to the all-powerful nine-member Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. That is, a sure bet until his trusted police chief (i.e., official enforcer) tried to defect to the Americans and tied his boss and wife Gu to the November 2011 death of a British businessman, Heywood. Wang was arrested, Bo was purged from his posts, and Gu was later arrested on suspicion of murder.

She now has been found guilty of premeditated murder, along with an associate (i.e., personal enforcer), apparently having poured poison into Heywood’s mouth after getting him drunk. The 41-year old Heywood, who had lived in China over a decade, positioned himself as a middleman between British companies and Chinese power players like Bo. He became part of the Bo family’s lucrative “business” circle, apparently providing connections for Bo in England, such as helping get his son into Eton. Yet as Gu became more erratic and paranoid about loyalty to the family (and, one assumes, obsessed with finding the best recipes for spaghetti marinara sauce and cannolis), Heywood started fearing for his life, with good reason.

Madame Gu sounds like a modern-day version of Lady Macbeth combined with the brutality of a Corleone family capo. Yet, despite disgrace and conviction, she was spared the ultimate penalty, being given instead a suspended death sentence. The Party, which clearly determined the verdict beforehand, appears to be employing the Ockham’s Razor school of jurisprudence: adopting the most parsimonious approach that will satisfy the basic question at hand (i.e., how to punish an out-of-control, yet still powerful member of the inner ruling circle).

This is a timid strategy, yet perhaps the one best suited to bury this situation quickly. Bo is now out of power, and his wife has been held accountable. Social critics of the Party corruption that this case exposed may be mollified that something was done to hold accountable those who usually seem untouchable. Those in powerful positions who continue to ride the gravy train have been put on notice that, if you get too far out of hand, the state will come for you. The Central Committee gets away with purging a potentially over-powerful future member (Bo) without crossing a line (death for Gu) that could cause a Godfather-like vendetta between warring factions.

Is it justice? No. It’s the world of a deeply corrupt, morally debased Party leadership terrified of each other and the 1.3 billion (mostly poor) persons they rule without legitimacy. It is a clear example of why China will never reach true greatness, let alone sustainable, real development, or greater freedom as long as it is controlled by the Communists and the armed force backing them.

Michael Auslin — Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues.

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