Gu Kailai Trial and China’s Rule by Law

On Thursday, August 9, 2012, in China’s Anhui province, the murder trial of Gu Kailai, wife of a high-profile former Communist Party official, for the murder of British businessman, Neil Heywood, ended after seven hours. The trial is regarded as the highest profile political trial in decades, Gu Kailai being the wife of disgraced former Communist Party official Bo Xilai.

Heywood, a family friend of Gu and Bo, was found dead in his Chongqing hotel room in November 2011, the morning after dining with Gu. The trial has garnered international attention, with many China law scholars asking what light the proceedings shed on China’s purported pursuit of a law-based society (法治国家).

Chinese authorities have reported that Gu did not contest charges that she murdered Heywood by poisoning him while he was drunk. According to Xinhua News, the official press agency of the PRC, Gu and her co-defendant, family aide Zhang, confessed to intentional homicide. However, according to an unofficial account of the trial published by a non-Party observer, her defense lawyer in fact raised a number of questions about the prosecution’s version of events, questions which were not reported by Xinhua. The most important of these relate to cause of death. According to Gu’s defense, the first autopsy found no symptoms of cyanide poisoning and no cyanide in the blood sample. The second test, conducted four months after Heywood’s death (and following alleged problems with the chain of custody of the blood samples), purportedly found only a non-lethal level of cyanide. Further, Heywood’s family had a history of cardiovascular disease, which the defense claimed could have caused the death (other evidence to support this claim was also introduced).  If Heywood did, in fact, die of heart failure, Gu could, of course, be found guilty only of attempted murder, not murder.

Despite the trial superficially having many of the trappings of a fair, somewhat open, and genuine judicial procedure, it would appear from unofficial reports of the proceedings that numerous important, potentially pivotal, legal questions were ignored or omitted from the trial. In addition to the defense’s concerns about the cause of death, questions were also raised about Gu’s mental fitness for trial/conviction, and whether a clear motive had been established. The consensus among China watchers is that Gu will be found guilty and that the trial lacks legitimacy for its failure to delve deeply into the defense’s case. Some commentators have gone further, arguing, based on what we already know about China’s under-developed and deeply political judicial system, that the outcome had already been decided at the highest level of China’s Communist Party, in the context of a political power struggle between top CPC leaders (Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao) and Gu’s husband, former head of the CPC’s Chongqing branch.

While there is, I believe, generally great cause to be hopeful about China’s ongoing transition from Party rule to rule by law (rule of law being another question altogether), the trial of Gu Kailai, and the disparity between the reports of state and non-state observers, does little to lend credence to the PRC’s rhetorical commitment to ensuring society is “law-ruled” (as democratic nations understand the concept).

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