China unveiled formal charges against the wife of ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai over the alleged murder of a UK businessman, in a case that's shaken the Communist Party months before a leadership transition.
Gu Kailai, once a well-known lawyer, was accused of "intentional homicide" by poisoning Briton Neil Heywood, the official Xinhua News Agency said yesterday. An orderly in the family home, Zhang Xiaojun, was also charged, the report said.
"The facts are clear and the evidence is firm and adequate," Xinhua said. Gu, 53, and her son had a financial conflict with Heywood, which led her to believe he was a threat to her son's safety, Xinhua said.
The prosecution pushes forward the Chinese Communist Party's case against Bo, 63, whose ouster was the most serious upheaval in the country's top ranks since Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was purged in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The challenge for China's leaders will be to convince the public that the incident is an aberration and not a symptom of deeper problems within the system, said June Teufel Dreyer, a professor of political science at the University of Miami who focuses on China.
"Now you have a really cynical and alienated population," Dreyer said in a telephone interview. In China "it plays into a larger sense of malaise -- our leaders are not looking out for us."
One way the party may seek to do that in the coming weeks and months, Dreyer said, is to demonize Gu, portraying her as evil, extravagant and adulterous. Gu may get a death sentence that will be suspended indefinitely, she said.
Bo was removed as Chongqing party secretary in March, and in April was suspended from the Politburo and accused of serious violations of Communist Party discipline after the allegations about his wife were revealed. He hasn't been seen in public since the National People's Congress in March.
Prosecutors interrogated Gu and Zhang, and "heard the opinions of the defense team," Xinhua said. A trial will be held at at an undecided date, it said.
Gu's alleged involvement in Heywood's death was exposed after Bo's former police chief in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, went to the US Consulate in Chengdu in February bearing evidence she and Zhang had Heywood killed, according to US officials briefed on the matter. Chinese investigators had initially told UK authorities that Heywood died of alcohol poisoning.
The indictment is a sign that the country's leadership has reached a consensus about Bo's fate at summertime meetings in the beachside resort of Beidaihe and that Bo will "very soon" be charged as well, said Huang Jing, a professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.
Huang said the details in Gu's indictment suggest the charges against Bo may be very narrow, focused on attempts to obstruct justice to protect his wife. That will keep the focus away from broader corruption charges that could stain other leaders, Huang said in a telephone interview from Chengdu, Sichuan province.
Cheng Li, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in a telephone interview that Gu's indictment signals that Bo will probably be kicked out of the Communist Party in the coming days or weeks.
Gu is the youngest of five daughters of a People's Liberation Army general, according to a Chinese-language website affiliated with the Communist Youth League. She rose from a butcher's assistant during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution to become a lawyer who won a lawsuit in the US and went on to write a book about the experience.
Bo's family has become an embodiment of the political influence and wealth that can accrue to relatives of China's top leaders. Bo is a so-called princeling because his father, Bo Yibo, was one of the founding revolutionary leaders of the People's Republic. Gu's sisters controlled a web of businesses from Beijing to Hong Kong to the Caribbean worth at least $126 million, regulatory and corporate filings show.
Bo Guagua, Gu and Bo's son, fueled further speculation about the family's wealth for attending Britain's elite Harrow School and Oxford University, and then Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Seeking to dispel claims that he lived an extravagant lifestyle, Bo Guagua sent a letter to Harvard's Crimson newspaper in April saying that his education was funded partly by his mother's "generosity from the savings she earned from her years as a successful lawyer and writer."
Speaking at a briefing at the National Party Congress in March, Bo said his wife had quit her law practice and mostly did housework. "I am very moved of her sacrifice," Bo said.
"A trial held according to the law will strengthen the Chinese people's confidence in the country's legal system," the state-run Global Times said in an editorial today. "This is a criminal case, and society should see it as one. The public should adopt this attitude."