Gu Kailai at the Hefei City Intermediate People's Court in Anhui Province. Photo: CCTV/Reuters
A Chinese court Monday morning sentenced Gu Kailai to death for the killing of British businessman Neil Heywood, but suspended the sentence, a Heywood family lawyer told Reuters.
"This case has been like a huge stone weighing on me for more than half a year. What a nightmare. During those days last November, I suffered a mental breakdown after learning that my son was in jeopardy."
"To me, that was more than a threat. It was real action that was taking place. I must fight to my death to stop the craziness of Neil Heywood."
Those words, given by Gu Kailai on Aug. 9 in a packed courtroom in the city of Hefei in east-central China, have offered a glimmer into the psychology that pushed the wife of Bo Xilai -- disgraced Politburo member and former party chief of the western megalopolis of Chongqing -- into an act of murder.
China analysts expected Gu's confession to soften the final verdict and sentencing.
Her victim, British national, businessman and educational "fixer" Neil Heywood, had helped her son Bo Guagua into England's famed Harrow School and Oxford University. If Gu's confession rings with any element of truth, family friend Heywood also had a dark side to his character, one which became a threat to the safety of some who knew him and may have eventually pushed the mentally unstable Gu to take her own drastic and even darker actions.
The details of the murder, a poisoning by cyanide, which took place inside a Chongqing hotel room after Heywood was incapacitated with what must have been copious amounts of alcohol, read like something out of a mystery novel.
Gu poured cyanide into Heywood's mouth after he began vomiting from overdrinking, according to her confession. She and her assistant, Zhang Xiaojun, then proceeded to set up a death scene that resembled a self-inflicted overdose, laying broken pills across the room. Municipal police were able to piece enough evidence together to accurately conclude a murder, but chose to protect Gu due to her privileged position.
That occurred last November. By February 2012, Chongqing's former police chief and deputy mayor, Wang Lijun, a past confidant of Bo Xilai, had fled into the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. Whether he had done so of his own volition, or had been forced there by disagreements with Bo is largely unknown. Whatever the motivation was, information he may have divulged to U.S. diplomats and later to Chinese authorities led to a reopening of the Heywood death -- this time squarely pinning the guilt of an intentional homicide on Gu.
A few short weeks later, Bo was out of his positions of power.
The outcome of the case is considered only the first half of an ongoing political drama that has seen one of China's most powerful leaders fall from grace. Bo, once considered a favorite for a key position on China's Politburo Standing Committee, the exalted group of nine who rule China, has become inextricably linked to Heywood's death and his wife's actions.
Whether that is part of a larger attempt by the Chinese government to depose a corrupt politician, raise the rule of law, clean up its own reactionary and unreliable leaders, a ruthless bid by political enemies to secure their own power, or all the above mentioned, remains largely uncertain -- and may remain that way for some time.
Bo made a reputation in Chongqing (which later expanded into a national following) for attacking organized crime, supporting big state-owned enterprises, aggressive takeovers and development of rural land, and championing Maoist propaganda that evoked the revolutionary past. Yet he was also blamed for heavy-handed and oppressive approaches, stirring up flawed and romanticized images of the Cultural Revolution, and creating broader animosities between rural and urban populaces. He must now wait to see how the party courts will deal out justice to his own abuses.
The charges against Bo will probably include corruption and pocketing public monies, but the prosecution may also claim that he used power to shield his wife and family from the law in the aftermath of the Heywood murder.
All of which means that there is still plenty of space for debating the case into the far future.
From one perspective, Bo and Gu's downfall seem like the just actions of a society struggling to establish the rule of law; from another, the cruel scapegoating of a troubled but privileged family. It could be the bitter result of an opaque internal battle for power, or a breath of relief to see more dangerous and oppressive elements of the leadership restrained.
Whichever way, definition of "victim" in the Bo Xilai - Gu Kailai scandal continues to be a fluid concept, regardless of the court's recent decisions.