The trial yesterday of Gu Kailai was unique, even if the way the hearing was wrapped up in eight hours shows that proceedings – and one must assume the verdict – were pre-determined. For the wife of a prominent, if now defenestrated, Chinese leader to be put in the dock for causing somebody else's death is unprecedented in the last major state ruled by a Communist Party.
But the story surrounding the trial is even more revealing. It has lifted a corner of the veil shrouding elite Chinese politics and has illustrated the regime's problems in coping with a rapidly evolving society.
A year ago, Gu's husband, Bo Xilai, was being hailed as a coming man, a member of the Party Politburo and boss of the mega-municipality of Chongqing in south-western China. Campaigning for a seat on the country's supreme power body, the Politburo Standing Committee, he deployed unusually populist methods, combining top-down economic development with a "red songs" campaign, which encouraged the singing of ditties from the Mao Zedong era and celebration of the greatness of their country's past.
But Bo got too big for his boots. There were awkward stories about his family's lavish lifestyle on a limited official salary, including sending his son to Harrow and Oxford. His reported ambition to run the national police if he got to the Standing Committee could only have frightened other top-level politicians, given his naked ambition.
So Bo had to go. His foes got just the weapon they sought with the defection of the former Chongqing police chief to a US consulate where he spilled the beans about the death of Neil Heywood. Bo was sacked from his post in Chongqing and suspended from the Party pending further investigations.
This political side of the story showed how tough elite politics can be behind the screen of Party unity. But the criminal aspect – the alleged murder of Heywood by Gu pouring poison into him when he needed water after vomiting – was too lurid to be linked with a member of the Politburo. So Bo was kept off stage for this part of the case while his wife was portrayed as a woman with mental problems and a mother who acted to defend her son – from what is unclear.
The real importance of the case may be the way in which the saga has entered the public bloodstream. Accounts, many of them probably apocryphal, flow round social media. The leadership has closed ranks ahead of the Party Congress to be held later this year. But Chinese people have seen a little more about how their rulers behave and can only note what they have learned.
Jonathan Fenby's book 'Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today' was published earlier this year. He blogs on China at: www.trustedsources.co.uk/blog/china