China's trial of a century: Getting away with murder?

The Gu Kailai trial may not establish the truth about Neil Heywood's death – but it promises to shine a light on the ruling elite

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It is being hailed as China's trial of a century, with all the ingredients of a gripping courtroom potboiler: murder, money and intrigue, all played out in the secretive upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party. But when Gu Kailai walks into the courtroom in rural Anhui province tomorrow accused of poisoning the British businessman Neil Heywood, the party will want to keep the secrets safely under wraps.

Reports yesterday suggested that a deal had been struck, paving the way for a discreet and carefully orchestrated day-long trial which will spare her the executioner's bullet in order to preserve the party's grip on power. This plays into what analysts have been saying all along: it may be Ms Gu in front of the Hefei Intermediate People's Court, but the story is all about her husband, the purged Communist Party princeling Bo Xilai.

Sources said a deal was struck a month ago in which Ms Gu, once a top lawyer, will admit intentional homicide. But the trial will ignore "economic crimes" such as corruption and financial misappropriation, in a possible sign that Beijing does not intend criminally to prosecute her husband, the former Chongqing party head, who still has support from powerful factions within the party. There are also fears he could implicate other party leaders.

"They will have a very speedy trial and minimise the exposure of economic crimes," said Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political scientist at Hong Kong's City University. "This means Bo will be left out of the criminal process and will only face punishments within the framework of party discipline."

What it also means is that we may never learn quite how Mr Heywood – an Old Harrovian and high-flying businessman – became so embroiled with China's ultimate power couple at a crucial time in the run-up to the handover of the Communist Party leadership.

Their life began to unravel on 15 November, when the body of Mr Heywood was found slumped in a hotel room in Chongqing. After a brief police investigation, cause of death was attributed to alcohol poisoning. But then – in February this year – the Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, turned up at the US Consulate 170 miles away in Chengdu. Once Mr Bo's right-hand-man, Mr Wang had been abruptly sacked, and offered information to US officials about the death of Mr Heywood.

The Americans did not publicly share details, but within days, the British Embassy was urging the Chinese to reopen the Heywood case. Mr Wang, meanwhile, decided to leave the embassy the next morning, disappearing into the hands of the security services. The case finally caught up with Mr Bo and Ms Gu on 15 March, when Mr Bo was stripped of his position in Chongqing. Within a month, Chinese authorities confirmed that Ms Gu and an orderly were under investigation in connection with Mr Heywood's death.

Mr Bo was once the golden boy of the Communist Party, tipped for the highest office. But the arrogant way he wielded power and his dangerously popular charisma set him on a collision course with president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao. The party wants to keep any forms of destabilising disruption to a minimum, especially with the once-a-decade leadership transition looming at the 18th Communist Party congress in the autumn.

Whether or not the death of Mr Heywood emerged as a way to oust Mr Bo by enmeshing his wife in a sordid murder plot will likely never be known, but slowly a motive began to emerge. Mr Heywood was a long-time associate of the family, and helped Ms Gu amass a property portfolio in Hong Kong. Ms Gu, it is claimed, arranged his murder when he demanded more of the profits from a money-laundering business. It has also been reported that Ms Gu thought Mr Heywood could be a threat to her son, Guagua. Some reports suggested she was in the room when a colleague forced cyanide down his throat.

Formal charges were filed against her and her aide, Zhang Xiaojun, on 26 July. The sources quoted yesterday in the South China Morning Post described Ms Gu, 53, as "gracious" and "relaxed" as she confessed to the murder.

But now, it looks like a face-saving deal has been struck, whereby she is given a lengthy jail sentence. The pretext for not executing her is a lack of significant evidence. According to prosecution sources quoted by the South China Morning Post, the only physical evidence was a piece of Mr Heywood's heart removed by Mr Wang before the body was hastily cremated in November.

From the point of view of the Chinese authorities, the deal – if true – is beneficial because it separates the case from the party congress and the leadership succession process.

The party leaders have already gathered in Beidaihe, a resort near Beijing, for the annual round of political horse-trading. This year's meeting will be tougher than usual, as this is the most dangerous period in a single-party government, when factions grapple for influence while trying to secure a smooth transition of power.

It looks likely that President Hu, who will hand over power to Xi Jinping at the congress, has scored some crucial political points by agreeing not to pursue charges against Mr Bo. "It looks like Hu Jintao has secured some concessions for his preferred line-up after the congress, or support perhaps for retaining leadership of the Central Military Commission for two years after he gives up other leadership posts," said Mr Cheng.

If a deal had not been reached, Mr Bo – who has disappeared from the public eye – would have faced scrutiny over his vast fortunes. Having great wealth is not a crime for Communist leaders. But what Mr Bo and Ms Gu did was to flaunt it, especially through their son, Guagua, who liked to drive sports cars and whose high-life exploits at Oxford featured on Facebook.

The deal also means Chinese authorities can be seen to be working within the rule of law, both for a domestic audience – the wife of an important person goes to court just like anybody else – while it also responds to Britain's requests for justice for Mr Heywood.

For the moment, the shadowy authorities dealing with the case appear to have appeased the couple's political enemies without alienating their powerful supporters in the Politburo – a delicate balancing act they hope will hold until the end of a tumultuous year.

Neil Heywood: The man who knew too much

Neil Heywood, the 41-year-old Briton whose mysterious death sparked China's biggest political scandal in three decades, was a fluent Chinese speaker who dressed impeccably and perfectly fitted the Chinese vision of what an Englishman should look like. He drove a Jaguar, complete with a 007 number plate, and had friends in the aristocracy. He worked as an adviser to many companies, including Manganese Bronze, which makes Aston Martins and Rolls-Royce, and he was a corporate researcher. Mr Heywood helped Mr Bo's son get into his own alma mater and, according to leaked Chinese government reports, was used as a conduit to sneak money out of the country.

The leaks have painted a picture of him as a money launderer, but there are gaps in this story, the main one being that he did not appear to have been very wealthy.

He appears to have left his wife, Wang Lulu, and their two children in a financially uncertain situation. A former business associate had to pay for the family's plane tickets to attend his funeral in London.

Whatever the outcome tomorrow, Mr Heywood's family is not optimistic of a fair outcome. Ann Heywood, Mr Heywood's mother, told the Los Angeles Times: "There are no human rights in China, of which I'm totally aware."

Clifford Coonan