China's rulers seek to close ranks over Neil Heywood death

Looming murder trial of key Communist party figure's wife exposes ominous rift in leadership

Hong Kong

Pressure is mounting on rival factions in the Chinese Communist Party to unite over the outcome of the Gu Kailai trial to ensure its once-in-a-decade leadership change later this year is not derailed.

Ms Gu, 52, the wife of the disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai, could face trial as early as next Tuesday over the poisoning of the British businessman Neil Heywood, who died in Chongqing in central China last November.

The case has exposed ideological cracks within senior ranks and the party is desperate to paper them over before the next generation of leaders takes over at the 18th congress in autumn. The most significant hurdle to a smooth handover will be how the rival factions respond to the outcome of Ms Gu's trial, which has been assigned to Hefei, in the eastern province of Anhui, far from her husband's power base.

Ms Gu was only arrested in April and charged last week. However, as a lawyer, she is aware of how quickly the Chinese legal system can operate. After winning a landmark case in the USA for a Chinese company in 1998, she tried to capitalise on her new-found fame by writing a book praising her country's legal system.

"As long as it is known that you, John Doe, killed someone, you will be arrested, tried and shot to death," Ms Gu wrote – words that are now surely coming back to haunt her.

When the state news agency Xinhua announced the charges against her, it said the facts of the "crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial". The statement left little doubt about the outcome of the trial, but all eyes will be on the punishment, which could range from three years in jail up to the death penalty.

Zhang Lifan, a political analyst formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Communist Party was locked in a desperate struggle over its future direction, but would try and unite behind Ms Gu's case to "create a favourable and harmonious atmosphere" before the handover.

"The decision [to try Ms Gu quickly] suggests the leadership is eager to put an end to the political scandal as soon as possible," Mr Zhang told the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. "They are hoping to move beyond a scandal that has exposed a leadership split and threatens to lay bare corruption in the party's highest ranks."

Ms Gu's husband was a powerful figure among the party's leftist factions and was widely tipped to be elevated to the Politburo's all-powerful Standing Committee before his family was swept up in the scandal surrounding Mr Heywood's death. Mr Bo, 63, has not been charged over the death but was suspended from the party. He was accused of "serious discipline violations'' and has not been heard from since.

He still has strong allies among like-minded ideologues in the party's senior leadership. The case has disrupted their momentum against current president, Hu Jintao, and the more moderate Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, but if they feel Ms Gu is being punished excessively, they could fight back.

The wording of the official announcement of the charges was widely seen as giving the court room to manoeuvre in its sentencing of Ms Gu.

"Worrying about Neil Heywood's threat to her son's personal security, Bogu Kailai… poisoned Neil Heywood to death," the statement said, using Ms Gu's married name. References to her son Bo Guagua's "conflicts" with Mr Heywood "over economic interests" provide mitigating circumstances that could be used to reduce any sentence.

Authorities originally ruled that Mr Heywood, 41, who had business dealings with Ms Gu and Mr Bo, had died of excessive drinking. The case unravelled when Chongqing's former police chief Wang Lijun sought asylum in the US consulate in Chengdu and revealed evidence that was eventually used to bring down his old boss and Mrs Gu. The family housekeeper, Zhang Xiaojun, has also been charged with intentional homicide over the incident.

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