“Gu Kilai, wife of China’s disgraced Communist Party leader Bo Xilai, was today handed a death sentence after the court found her guilty of murder in the death of a British businessman, a court official said.

Gu’s death penalty has been suspended for two years due to her weakened mental capacity while committing the crime and her close cooperation with police during the investigation, according to Tang Yigan, deputy chief of Hefei Intermediate People’s Court.”


For the past 6 months I have been completely enthralled by China’s Bo Xilai scandal.  It is a sordid tale of criminality and deception against a backdrop of political intrigue and shadowy power plays.  Like France’s Dreyfus or England’s Profumo or, even, America’s Watergate, this affair has enough intrigue to amuse the masses while substantiating the deep rifts within the country’s political leadership.  While it is said that we are allowed to see only that which the Party wants us to see; fortunately the public element is so deliciously enthralling that it would match the best plots of Graham Greene and John Le Carre combined.


Telegenic Bo and his beautiful wife Gu Kailai are often compared to Jack and Jackie Kennedy, if only because they come from important political families and are deeply ambitious.   Bo’s family was harshly persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and he, along with his parents and siblings, was imprisoned and sent for “re-education”.  After Mao’s death in 1976 the family was exonerated and began to reassert its political influence.  By the late 1980s, the elder Bo Yibo, then included amongst the “eight immortals” of the Communist Party, helped promote Jiang Zemin to Party Leader.  Needless-to-say, Bo Yibo was a powerful and prominent figure in the Party and was Joseph Kennedy-like in promoting his son.  He died in 2007.


Bo Xilai was recognized as a “princeling” with a powerful political pedigree and unbridled ambition.  As the Mayor of Dalian he was credited with transforming the second-tier city into a shining example of modern, progressive China.  As the Party Chief in Chongqing he was known as a populist willing to fight corruption, attack organized crime and improve the lives of his citizenry.  More telling was the fact that Bo Xilai  understood the power of the media and actively cultivated his image.  Bo was an impressive combination of Michael Bloomberg and Boris Johnson, albeit with more than a hint of Richard Daley, Chicago’s notorious former mayor, thrown in. In politics, as with everything in China, nothing is quite as it seems.


Bo was on the cusp of fulfilling his (and his powerful father’s) life-long ambition of being chosen for a seat on the Central Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party. The nine men who comprise this committee rule China. He was positioned perfectly. With his charismatic speeches and rapport with the media, he was well-liked by the “people” as someone who could carry China’s banner internationally.  He was modern China.


Indeed, he was the personification of the best and worst of modern China, powerful and progressive with a glutinous hunger for wealth and prestige.  He cloaked himself in nationalism and Communist Party rhetoric while he amassed a fortune through unaccountable means.  How did a man who earned $22,000/year afford to send his son to Harrow, Oxford and Harvard? And how did his son manage to throw huge parties and drive a Ferrari? (I wonder why every potentate regardless of place of origin has a bloated son with limited intelligence, marginal appeal and a taste for Italian engineering.)


It seems this is where an ill-fated Englishman named Neil Heywood came into the picture.  His job, so they say, was to help Bo and Gu get their money out of China; $100 million worth, if you believe some news reports. They also reported that he and Gu were lovers.  Well, hell hath no fury… and last November this Englishman went to a clandestine meeting in a dingy resort hotel in a dusty town and wound up dead.


Mr. Heywood was treated to a very quick cremation and that was where things might have ended.  After all, lots of people succumb to excess alcohol, the official cause of death. Unfortunately for Gu, Bo had lost his velvet touch and promptly demoted Wang Lijun after being presented with a private report that implicated Gu in the murder. Wang was Bo’s longstanding henchman, Chief of Police, Deputy Mayor and personal facilitator who understandably feared the wrath of his boss.


A few days later, Wang fled to the American Embassy in Chengdu, allegedly seeking asylum and carrying incriminating documentation.   Upon Bo’s command seventy armed cars full of police surrounded the Embassy, while the diplomatic cables, the internet and twitter were a-twitter with salacious gossip.  The American Embassy was deeply uncomfortable and Beijing had a stony silence.  The loyal Wang was allowed to leave on “his own accord” to begin a “vacation-style medical treatment”. Last week he was charged with “bending the law for selfish ends, defection, abuse of power and bribe-taking,” thus proving once again that no good turn goes unpunished.
In July, Gu was charged with murder.  She immediately confessed that she had invited Mr. Heywood to the hotel, got him drunk and poured cyanide down his throat.  She claimed to have  been in a hormonal rage and that Heywood had threated her son in order to extort a higher commission on his money-laundering activities.  China’s trial of the century – its OJ moment – lasted only one day!


Speculation is rife that the woman in the dock was a body double.  Two experts in facial recognition were quoted in the FT as saying it is not Gu.  She was noticeably fatter with puffy eyes and pallid complexion, they noted.  (Well, if that’s not a sign of hormonal upheaval I don’t know what is!) As bizarre as it sounds, there have been actual cases reported of rich Chinese hiring people to serve prison sentences for them. They are called ding zui or “substitute criminals”.  And I thought “substitute teacher” was a bad job!


As for Bo, he has not been seen since March.  He was absent from an important National Peoples’ Congress meeting in early March and was officially replaced as Party Chief of Chongqing shortly thereafter.  With Wang’s trial about to commence the next scene is set. Wang will suffer public vilification since, according to the official Xinhua news agency, “facts related to Wang Lijun’s crimes were clear” and “the evidence was concrete and abundant”. (Can you say “so screwed” in Mandarin?)   And only thereafter will the focus turn to Bo Xilai.


I can’t wait for the next installment! The truth and the fiction will be indistinguishable but equally fascinating.

1 comment

  1. Dear Julie and John, I have read and enjoyed your extensive resports of your exhilarating life. Much respect for the balance and the family life that your are able to keep. I was wondering if or when your are back in Vancouver, since I have will have a number of meetings there in the next 6 weeks. If it would your scedule (in case you are in Vancouver)would allow I would love to invite you for dinner. In the mean time I like to send you a mail how I have sailed through these difficult times. Can you plse send me your mail address (

    Looking forward to hear,

    Michael Visser

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