China Charges Wife of Ousted Official in Briton's Killing
BEIJING — In a nation that prefers the wives of political leaders to be bland adornments, Gu Kailai was positively fluorescent. Married to Bo Xilai, the Politburo member whose downfall earlier this year is still shaking the Communist Party, she reveled in her brash, ambitious ways.
Admirers bragged that Ms. Gu, a pioneering lawyer who spoke fluent English, was China’s answer to Jacqueline Onassis.
But in formally charging her on Thursday with the poisoning death late last year of a British businessman, the Chinese government, almost certainly intentionally, has placed the larger-than-life Ms. Gu into a familiar Chinese framework: the conniving, bloodthirsty vixen whose hunger for money derailed her husband’s promising career.
Although no one has presented any compelling evidence to rebut the official narrative that Ms. Gu, 53, played a role in the death of the businessman, many wonder if party leaders are using her case to deflect public disgust over the kind of corruption and abuse of power that critics say was embodied by her husband. Mr. Bo, who was suspended last April from the Politburo and has not been heard from since, has so far remained in a parallel justice system reserved for the party elite. His fate was not mentioned in the brief statement announcing his wife’s trial.
“Throughout Chinese history, whenever there’s a political struggle, whenever someone has to fall, they blame the wife,” said Hung Huang, the publisher of a fashion magazine whose own mother, Mao Zedong’s former English tutor, spent two years under house arrest after she was accused of collaborating with the Gang of Four.
Chinese history is sprinkled with tales of cunning women whose outsize ambitions led them — and sometimes the men in their lives — to ruination. Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, took much of the blame for the calamitous decade of the Cultural Revolution, a point driven home in a televised show trial that electrified the nation. And Chinese schoolchildren can readily recite the crimes of Empress Dowager Cixi, who is portrayed as a rapacious, homicidal leader whose machinations helped topple the Qing dynasty.
It is unclear if Mr. Bo played a role in the death of the Briton, Neil Heywood, or the subsequent attempt to cover it up. But leaving him out of the announcement of the charges implies that Mr. Bo is unlikely to be implicated in that element of the scandal, as prosecutors are viewed as unlikely to hold separate trials related to the same death.
Susan L. Shirk, an expert on Chinese politics, said party officials might be reluctant to accuse Mr. Bo of participating in a cover-up of the murder, given his popularity among some ordinary Chinese and with an influential faction of the leadership.
“They have to handle this in a way that protects Bo Xilai’s reputation,” said Ms. Shirk, a former State Department official who teaches at the University of California, San Diego. “They don’t want all the dirty laundry of elite politics to be aired because they really don’t know the potential threat posed by Bo’s followers.”
The official Xinhua news agency disclosed Thursday evening that Ms. Gu would be tried in regular criminal court, along with an aide employed by the family, for the murder of Mr. Heywood, 41, whose body was found last November in a hotel in Chongqing, the sprawling municipality Mr. Bo led until his downfall.
“The facts of the two defendants’ crime are clear,” Xinhua said, “and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial.”
No date was set for the trial, however, which will take place in a city 800 miles from Chongqing. If found guilty, Ms. Gu could face the death penalty.
While repeating earlier accusations that tied the murder to “a conflict over economic interests,” the announcement added two details: it confirmed that Mr. Heywood had been poisoned and it said that Ms. Gu committed the crime to protect her son, Bo Guagua, who recently graduated from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. It was unclear what Bo Guagua might have done to need protection from Mr. Heywood, but the announcement omitted her son’s full name, suggesting that prosecutors have decided not to implicate him in the crime.
In fact, it all seems to be falling on Ms. Gu’s shoulders. The charges referred to her as “Bogu Kailai,” a name that combines her name with that of her husband. Some analysts have suggested that referring to her by a compound name, following an outdated tradition sometimes still used by Chinese who live outside mainland China, hints that she has or had foreign residency, violating the rules governing senior leaders and their families.
She also has other strikes against her. News media reports in China and elsewhere often referred to her as a gatekeeper to her husband, reaping substantial financial benefits. She had lived abroad and broke an unwritten rule by inviting foreigners into the family’s inner circle.
One of those foreigners, Patrick Henri Devillers, a French architect who had worked for Mr. Bo during his tenure as the mayor of Dalian, arrived in China last week from Cambodia, where he had been arrested at the behest of Beijing. Mr. Devillers, who claims he returned here on his own volition, has told French officials that he is helping in the investigation of Ms. Gu.
The relationship between Mr. Heywood and one of China’s most fabled political families remains murky, the subject of considerable gossip and innuendo. But friends say he met Mr. Bo and Ms. Gu in Dalian in the 1990s and later helped arrange schooling in Britain for the couple’s son. Those with knowledge of the party’s investigation say he was also involved in helping the family transfer illicit funds overseas.
Like her husband, Ms. Gu is the offspring of a revolutionary hero, and like many “princelings” she experienced her share of hardship during the Cultural Revolution. Forced to fend for herself after her family was imprisoned, she worked for a time as a butcher and a bricklayer, according to accounts in the state news media. In the late 1970s, though, she was among the first batch of students to be admitted to college after the death of Mao.
“Courage is more important than wisdom,” she once wrote in a book that detailed her successful pursuit of a case in an American court that yielded a $1 million settlement. The book was something of a sensation and led to the creation of a popular television show whose protagonist — a comely, quick-witted legal crusader — was based on Ms. Gu.
Her legal practice flourished, thanks in part to the connections of her husband, who later became commerce minister.
“They were like royalty in Dalian,” said Edward O. Byrne, an American lawyer who helped Ms. Gu file her 1997 lawsuit in the United States and later spent time with the couple in China. “The people who worked for them would refer to them as the Kennedys of China.”
By most accounts, Ms. Gu was fiercely devoted to Bo Guagua, her only child. In 1998, she accompanied him to Britain, where he attended a private preparatory school, and later, the elite Harrow School, which was Mr. Heywood’s alma mater. According to Mr. Heywood’s friends, he was instrumental in helping the boy gain admission to Harrow, which charges annual tuition equivalent to $55,000. Ms. Gu spent at least two years in Britain, where she went by the name Horus, the Egyptian god of war.
Some of those who knew her during her time in the seaside resort town of Bournemouth recalled her as a mysterious businesswoman enamored with fine hotels and jewelry. But others described her as unpretentious.
Richard Starley, the landlord of her apartment in Bournemouth, said she used to practice her English with him over coffee. “She was the most gracious, nice lady you could meet,” he said. “I don’t think she could hurt a fly.”