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China’s Trial of the Century

China’s trial of the century begins Thursday in a backwater provincial capital. Gu Kailai and assistant Zhang Xiaojun have been charged with the “intentional homicide”—better known as murder—of Neil Heywood, a British businessman.

Heywood’s body was found in a run-down state-run hotel in Chongqing last November. He is believed to have been poisoned, cyanide forced down his throat. At the time, the official explanation was that the 41-year-old Briton had died of a heart attack. We will never know the truth: Heywood’s body was cremated soon after discovery.

Why would Gu want Heywood dead? The state implies that Heywood threatened Gu’s son, Bo Guagua. A more likely explanation is that Heywood, a Mr. Fixit, had sought an excessive fee to smuggle out of China hundreds of millions of dollars for Gu. There is also the possibility that Gu wanted to cover up an illicit sexual relationship with him.

The story on its own is sensational, but what makes it explosive is that Gu is married to Bo Xilai, once the most charismatic and openly ambitious politician in China. Bo, the son of one of the Communist Party’s “Eight Immortals,” was the party secretary of Chongqing, the metropolis in southwestern China, and a member of the Politburo. Now, however, Bo has been stripped of his posts. He is believed to be in custody somewhere in China, accused of “serious discipline violations.”

Bo, however, is thought to have done more than just breach internal Communist Party rules. Since early February, tales of lust, murder, corruption, and abuse of office have circulated in the Chinese and foreign media as well as on China’s irrepressible social media sites. One of Bo’s top lieutenants, Wang Lijun, is accused of treason. The telling and retelling of sordid tales—whether true or not—has seriously eroded the legitimacy of the party.

Top Communist Party leaders were undoubtedly embarrassed by the lurid revelations this year, and now they apparently wish to settle matters with a show trial of Gu. If the trial is conducted quickly and seamlessly, the ruling organization will be better able to proceed to the 18th Congress, where Fourth Generation leaders, led by Hu Jintao, will make way for the Fifth, presumably under the command of Vice President Xi Jinping.

To smooth the way to the Congress, slated for this fall, China’s state media has been working overtime. “The facts of the two defendants’ crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial,” declares Xinhua News Agency, an official organ, commenting on Gu’s and Zhang’s culpability.

That pronouncement makes it sound like the fix is in. Gu will get a speedy hearing and a quickly imposed sentence. To make sure that her case does not further fracture the unity of the party, she will be given a relatively light punishment—probably a suspended death sentence that will eventually be commuted to life imprisonment—and she will not be forced to surrender her considerable wealth. After all, she has not being charged with money laundering or related crimes.

Will the Communist Party get away with a sweep-it-under-the-carpet trial of Madame Gu? The result, apparently negotiated by leaders of the various factions in the party, has to pass one critical hurdle: public opinion in China.

China’s leaders are apparently worried. “It will be a landmark trial,” stated the Global Times, the Communist Party­–run newspaper, late last month. “So far, it has sent a message to society that nobody, regardless of his or her status and power, can be exempt from punishment if he or she behaves unscrupulously, especially if he harms another person’s life.”

The propaganda indicates that party leaders are concerned. We will get a sense whether their efforts have worked when Gu’s verdict is announced.

China’s people, rocked by the revelations this spring, are not likely to accept the result as fair, given the failure to prosecute Gu’s husband, Comrade Bo, in connection with this murder. The Communist Party may be powerful enough to get by this crisis, but it cannot continue to lose credibility and retain power indefinitely.

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