In China, Gu Kailai’s Reprieve Reinforces Cynicism

August 21, 2012

BEIJING — When it comes to patriotic blockbusters, synchronized military parades and choreographed political cavalcades that fill the Great Hall of the People, the Chinese Communist Party knows how to put on a show.

But in publicly prosecuting Gu Kailai, the wife of the purged political leader Bo Xilai, for murdering a British business associate, it seems to have committed some fumbles.

The party’s carefully scripted trial of Ms. Gu — which led to her conviction on Monday for poisoning the Briton, Neil Heywood, and a suspended death sentence — appears to have prompted anger and cynicism from almost everyone here who paid attention.

Die-hard leftists who still back Mr. Bo and his populist policies detected strands of a grand political conspiracy. Legal scholars identified glaring inconsistencies in what the government had trumpeted as a model of judicial exactitude. And liberals, noting that Ms. Gu’s crime would have remained secret had not a player in the scandal divulged incriminating details to American diplomats, found further evidence that their leaders believe they can literally get away with murder.

“For many people, the party was just trying to use the justice system for their own purposes, but they did it in such a way that made everyone laugh,” said Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist provocateur who spent 81 days in extralegal detention last year for what he says was his unyielding government criticism. “It’s obvious to everyone that they came up with the sentence before the facts were known.”

Even ordinary Chinese ridiculed the decision to spare Ms. Gu’s life, saying a commoner would have been summarily executed for the murder of a foreigner. “Steal a whole country and they make you prince. Steal a fishing hook and they hang you,” read one oft-forwarded proverb.

In sparing her, court officials cited Ms. Gu’s mental instability; her fear that Mr. Heywood might harm her son; and her testimony, which also led to the conviction on Monday of four police officials she had enlisted in a cover-up.

Her principal accomplice, Zhang Xiaojun, a family employee convicted of a limited role, was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Suspended death sentences in China are often tantamount to life in prison, but good behavior can bring jail time down to 25 years. And the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco group that advocates reform of China’s criminal justice system, noted that the psychological ailments cited by the court could make medical parole possible in less than a decade.

There was no such discussion in the statement published by the official Xinhua news agency, which brimmed with congratulatory prose and quoted spectators at the trial extolling the government’s devotion to the rule of law. “Listening to both the trial and the verdict announcement gave me firsthand experience of justice delivered by the law,” said one Wang Xiuqin, a local party member in Anhui Province, where the trial was held. “A healthy socialist legal system does not leave crimes unpunished.”

Many legal observers, however, were less inspired, noting that Ms. Gu, 53, a trained lawyer, would have known precisely what she was doing when, according to the prosecution’s account, she got Mr. Heywood drunk and then fed him cyanide mixed with water. “She planned the crime herself, put the poison in his mouth herself, destroyed the evidence herself but didn’t turn herself in,” Wang Lianqi, a lawyer and commentator, wrote in a blog post. “Why did she receive a suspended death sentence? Could it be that our Constitution has been amended to say that people are not treated equally before the law?”

On Sina Weibo, the country’s most popular microblog service, Ms. Gu was avidly compared to Xia Junfeng, a food peddler on death row who fatally stabbed two urban management officials after they beat him. “A lawyer who commits premeditated murder gets a suspended death penalty, and a peddler who defends himself gets death,” one posting said. “This is the Chinese justice system.”

From the outset, the murder of Mr. Heywood was an especially daunting public relations challenge for the party. And the Internet made the task even more daunting — despite a veritable army of censors. Judicial officials, who normally conduct criminal trials behind closed doors, were forced to accept greater transparency because of the victim’s nationality. The authorities barred foreign journalists but could not deny access to British consular officials.

But party strategists seem to have made several miscalculations, releasing details of a confession by Ms. Gu that defied conventional wisdom and allowing leaks from several attendees of the trial. Portions of those accounts, including prosecution claims that Mr. Bo’s most trusted aide had a hand in the cover-up, were omitted from an official narrative released by the state media, fueling accusations that the authorities were trying to shield Mr. Bo from any criminal charges.

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