Leading article: A murder trial that says much about China

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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'