Leading article: A murder trial that says much about China

The Gu Kailai case exposes the murkier aspects of Chinese politics and society

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In character and location, the city of Hefei in China's Anhui province and the privileged seaside resort of Beidaihe on China's eastern coast could not be more different. But today they will be intimately connected, as the trial opens of Gu Kailai – until recently known as the Jackie Kennedy of China – for complicity in the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood.

The link is Ms Gu's husband, the former Communist Party boss of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, whose lineage and ambition would doubtless have qualified him for a villa at Beidaihe – the traditional summer retreat of China's politial elite – this crucial year had the Heywood affair not intervened. As leader of one of China's fastest growing cities, he was a serious player, but a contentious one, too, because of what were seen as his unfashionable – and perhaps dangerous – conservative views.

The Heywood murder removed Mr Bo from the seasonal political jockeying that goes on at Beidaihe – and is especially fraught this year because a major leadership handover is due to be announced in the autumn. But the ideological tendency and the support of the urban power base he represented appear to have been harder to banish. Which is why, many believe, Ms Gu's trial is being rushed through, even by China's standards of summary justice. A conviction or – perhaps still better from the authorities' point of view – a guilty plea, would leave Mr Bo condemned by association and ensure his exit from the political stage.

The arrangements for Ms Gu's trial say much about the quality of Chinese justice. Both its timing – well before the autumn leadership announcements – and its duration, likely to be just one or two days, smack of a foregone conclusion. The decision to hold the trial in Anhui province, rather than in Chongqing, where Mr Bo ruled and Mr Heywood died, betray apprehension that the Bo family's influence may linger. A small, redeeming feature is that two British diplomats have been permitted to attend; given that Mr Heywood was a British citizen and that his death was initially described as accidental, however, this is but a modest observance of diplomatic protocol. Nothing suggests a fair trial.

Forecasts of the outcome have veered from the death penalty to a relatively short prison term in return for a guilty plea, mitigated by self-defence. The suspicion must be, however, that the verdict will reflect more the political balance of power than actual evidence. The speed with which Mr Heywood's cause of death went from being a hushed-up heart attack to an alleged fatal poisoning by the local party boss's wife hardly encourages trust.

This glimpse of justice, Chinese-style, however, is just one of the reminders of the murkier aspects of Chinese politics and society. The West has become used to a China that is lauded, if not feared, for its economic prowess, its pace of industrialisation and its rising wealth. Occasionally, we recognise the cost – the ultra-cheap urban labour, environmental catastrophes and rural dispossession. Even then, we often ignore the corruption that lies behind much of China's rapid development, the soaring wealth of the well-connected and the privileges that their ill-gotten gains have bought. It is only when the elite turns upon itself, as appears to have happened with Bo Xilai, that the putrid underbelly is exposed.

Come September, when China's current leaders are expected to announce the transfer of power to their successors, they may well boast of the orderly transition as if it were almost democratic. It will be salutary then to recall the power struggle that briefly surfaced in the case of Bo Xilai and appreciate that genuine democracy and the rule of law, while often flawed, have much to recommend them.

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