Heywood case puts China on trial

21 August 2012

In Tudor Britain the rewards of power were vast, as were the punishments for those who failed -- the same could be said of Chinese power now, writes Kerry Brown.
In Tudor Britain the rewards of power were vast, as were the punishments for those who failed -- the same could be said of Chinese power now, writes Kerry Brown.

A wise man once quipped that the Communist Party of China didn't mind free elections as long as it knew the outcome beforehand. The same can now be said of the high-level trials it holds. The verdict given on Gu Kailai, over the death of British business man Neil Heywood, after one court appearance this month in Hefei, central China, was no big surprise. A suspended death sentence after her public admission she was culpable boils down to the kind of life term that this sort of murder would have attracted in Western courts.

Whether the family of Heywood, her reputed victim, are any closer to knowing the truth about what happened in the hotel room in which his body was found last November is another matter. Premier Wen Jiabao promised soon after the case came to light in February that "no one was above the law in China".

Even if we take this on face value as the statement of a brave aspiration, the fact that Gu's husband, Bo Xilai, was at the time a member of the 24-strong Politburo running the country and the party head of the huge southwest city of Chongqing certainly complicated issues. That a dossier had supposedly been delivered with all the details of this murder by one of Bo's key affiliates to the US consulate in Chengdu only underlined this. From the word go, this whole process has been more about control than about justice. So far, the tactic has worked.

The party's dearest wish, as it prepares itself for a leadership succession some time later this year, is that the drama of Gu and her trial will be forgotten as soon as possible. They have mandated stifling news management, with only the barest details of the case released. The narrative delivered in Gu's indictment raised many questions, both over the manner in which Heywood died, the reason for his death, and who actually did it (one court document claims he was still alive when Gu and her helpers left the hotel).

But as the most minimal explanation, at least for the time being, it has worked. Gu will now begin the long years in detention, figuring as just a vague memory as time goes on, with the real possibility that very soon her husband will join her. He is being investigated by the party discipline authorities.

Those who deal with China day to day shouldn't be too relaxed about this case, however. While infighting, and intrigue, usually involving highly dysfunctional families, are part and parcel of elite Chinese politics in the past half century, the fact that this one involved a foreigner at least gives Britain in particular, and the outside world more generally, a real right to ask some more intrusive questions about what happened, and how it has been dealt with.

A historian commented recently that in Tudor Britain 500 years ago, the rewards of power were vast, as were the punishments for those who failed.

The same could be said of Chinese power now. For those who make it to the top of this slipperiest of slippery poles, membership of the inner elite in the Communist Party gives access to influence, power and material gains unimaginable to most people. Bo and Gu have been rumoured to have had as much as $US1.5 billion in business interests abroad. This is a hard figure to substantiate, but evidence from elsewhere shows that even relatively minor party bosses from provinces, when rattled for corruption, regard millions as mere small change.

Running a country which has, on aggregate, grown fabulously rich in the past three decades but where the fundamental structures of power have not changed a great deal has created massive structural contradictions. Officially, party boss Hu Jintao earns no more than a $1000 a month -- but presides over a multi-trillion-dollar economy.

Bo as head of Chongqing was on a little less, yet had the resources to send his son to expensive schools and universities in Britain and the US.

Party leaders repeat the mantra that corruption is a life and death struggle and that it could oust them from power -- and yet cases like that of Gu and Bo show that, for most issues short of murder, there is extraordinary impunity within the system. Only Heywood's death lifted the lid on what has unfolded. It is interesting to speculate just how Bo would have fared had none of this happened.

The treatment of Gu, regardless of her guilt or innocence, raises all sorts of procedural issues, and offers a moment for outsiders to be a little more insistent that the Chinese government and the legal authorities are held to account for their claims they are building a rule of law under which everyone in society is to be judged. Where Chinese nationals are involved, it is harder to intervene like this.

But it was a British man whom Gu supposedly killed with cyanide and it is a British family that grieves with the incomplete information they have been given and the suspicions that hangs over the conduct of the trial. Justice should be heedless of national boundaries, for sure. In this case, that a foreigner was killed means outsiders can probe a little more deeply, and for them, and the Chinese people, that must surely be a good thing.

Kerry Brown is professor and director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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