China Policy Institute: Analysis


Gu Kailai

Bo Xilai/Gu Kailai Saga: was the murdered Neil Heywood “freelancing” for MI6?

by Don Keyser.

The Wall Street Journal reported in a November 6 article under Jeremy Page’s byline that Neil Heywood, the British expat businessman allegedly murdered by Chongqing Party Secretary/Politburo member Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai, had been in touch for more than a year with an officer of Britain’s MI6.  Page related that Bo Xilai’s former police chief in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, had shared with his American temporary hosts at the Chengdu consulate Gu Kailai’s “confession” to him that she had “killed a British spy.”  Page’s story ricocheted quickly around the blogosphere and spawned new or expanded reporting by other media.  The common – perhaps editorially irresistible – suggestion was that Heywood had not only betrayed a boyish fascination with the glamorous world of James Bond, as suggested by his automobile number plate “007,” but had been patriotically “freelancing” – or more – for MI6. 

 All this prompts the questions: Was Neil Heywood in fact an MI6 officer – and hence a “spy” — as Gu Kailai allegedly “confessed” to Wang Lijun?  Had Heywood been wittingly sharing information – “freelancing” – with MI6 about the Bo family’s activities?  Could such an allegedly long-standing relationship plausibly have taken place under the noses of China’s ubiquitous security organs and for that matter Bo’s rivals within the ranks of senior party members?  If the alleged Heywood/MI6 relationship had been monitored yet not acted upon, what might this suggest about the nature of power and politics in China? Might knowledge of the Heywood/Gu/Bo ties have prompted a high-level investigation by the relevant Chinese agencies and spurred by Bo’s intraparty adversaries?

Too many unknowns remain in the picture to permit a confident weaving of a fully satisfactory explanatory tapestry.  Some tentative judgments are possible.  First, Heywood appears not to have been a “spy” in any formal sense.  There is no indication that he was a trained professional or even a vetted asset periodically given taskings.  His reported activities seem more consistent with volunteerism: a man who, out of patriotism, perceived duty, and perhaps a frisson from clandestinity, shared his knowledge with the British embassy. 

Such relationships are neither rare nor surprising.  Embassies in general – not only intelligence officers – are in the business of collecting, assessing and reporting information.  Exhibit A: the Wikileaks cables. Given Heywood’s background and unusual access to Bo’s rarefied world, any embassy officer who did not seek to elicit information would have been guilty of uncommon lassitude. 

Secondly, the Chinese security services deploy vast human and technical resources in order to understand with high confidence the activities and motivations of foreigners in touch with Chinese citizens in sensitive positions.  A New York Times story published after Page’s story reported as much.  According to the paper’s unidentified Chinese sources, security organs had long been monitoring the Heywood-Bo/Gu connections.  Left unsaid was whether these organs had been aware of Heywood’s chats with the alleged MI6 officer, but it defies credulity to imagine otherwise. 

The Chinese are famously patient in investigation of  “state secrets” cases and famously gingerly in investigation of sensitive political cases.  The Heywood situation potentially involved both.  The relatively few Chinese privy to details of the developing case probably did not consider bringing a classic espionage case (why jeopardize Chinese equities with the British government over essentially commonplace embassy contacts?) but had much incentive to develop what the Russians call kompromat – politically compromising information to blackmail adversaries in murky internecine battles.  One must wonder whether Wang Lijun’s specific knowledge of such an investigation — perhaps launched by He Guoqiang’s CDIC,  Zhou Yongkang’s MSS, or both – triggered his approach to Bo Xilai in early February to warn him of the threat to his position and ambitions.

Don Keyser is a non-resident Senior Fellow of the CPI, who had previously served as a career diplomat in the US State Department.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

The ‘Political Case’ of Kailai Gu – Issues, Insights and Opportunties

by Sam Beatson.

She’s the daughter of a revolutionary leader  and has been called a ‘legal prodigy’, an author and the wife of a so-called ‘Neo-Maoist’ whose social welfare and patriotic policies paid off to society and to the man’s own glory, ultimately though turning to his detriment.

Kailai Gu (KG) received a suspended death sentence for the murder of Neil Heywood (NH) whilst her husband Xilai Bo continues to undergo a process of being ‘purged’ by the ruling Party in China.

A Chinese style ‘plea bargain’ involved a woman in court admitting guilt frankly, though facial recognition experts have disputed whether it was even her standing in the dock, leading to speculation that the real KG may have been unwilling to read parts of ‘the script’.

Defence mitigation was effectively one of diminished responsibility and the prosecution apparently had ‘irrefutable evidence’. No need for a trial then.

The worldly defendant undoubtedly would have known that a trial under the Chinese legal system would warrant the worst possible outcome for her and that would have meant death rather than life imprisonment. That these were the only two options has been accepted by journalistic and academic commentators.

However, whether or not KG had any choice or recourse to any real or substantial legal process let alone advocacy in the matter has not been debated properly.

One position (taken on this blog and elsewhere) has been that the Party has controlled the case from beginning to end, there has been the ‘illusion’ of a rigorous due process created, but no substantial rule of law process has been followed under the framework of the Chinese legal system that could ever have resulted in a trial that might conceivably have ended in a ‘not guilty’ jury verdict.

Aside from the multi-faceted contentiousness of all the above, there are three further issues worthy of note about this case:

Firstly, NH was a ‘British businessman’ who we are now expected to believe that KG poisoned with an accomplice. Has the victim’s nationality made this less of a case than if it had been a Chinese person? The reverse?

From Maoist times, ‘if you confess your crimes, you can be dealt with leniently’, in China. However, this blanket statement betrays the debate of whether NH’s being a foreigner makes it less or more of a crime.

China’s judiciary even prior to the ‘Mao era’ would need to be concerned about this kind of question given the discrepancies in development and judicial authority/independence between Chinese and say, British legal systems.

Secondly, British consular involvement have pushed for due process to take place and requested the death penalty not be applied. The people behind the case will have wanted to avoid international criticism and diplomatic antagonism if the case was not seen to be handled well and promptly given the changes about to take place as high as CCP Politburo Standing Committee level.

Thirdly, this case provided an interesting platform and opportunity for the public to speculate on opaque processes that were going in this case deemed ‘political’- however, the sheer opacity and tightness of string-pulling to get this case dealt with in exactly the desired way will have made such speculation short of allowing the Chinese public to really engage in meaningful politico-legal discourse about it.

The opportunity exists for the current and next generation of lawyers, judges and party officials to come together for a legal system in China that conducts due process with such integrity that it is able to become increasingly transparent and functionally independent.

At this stage in China’s development,  Hong Kong and the UK, for example, with  rich histories of independent and well-developed legal infrastructures, culture and institutions can offer a model for change that could be integrated in China. The KG case could prove pivotal, through the discourse being created, in the manifestation of the desires for fair and impartial justice and human rights in the hearts of the Chinese people.

Sam Beatson is a PhD candidate in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors

Swift justice and rough justice in China: criminal responsibility, the death penalty, and the Gu Kailai trial

By Jackie Sheehan.

For those familiar with the China’s criminal courts, the first response to Thursday’s seven-hour trial of Gu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun for Neil Heywood’s murder was probably “What took them so long?” A Chinese murder trial with multiple defendants can be over in under an hour, as witnesses almost never attend court, police evidence of guilt is always accepted, and defence counsel, only present at all in a minority of cases, are usually limited to offering mitigating evidence and pleas for leniency.

This is what Gu’s locally-appointed lawyers (imposed in place of her original Beijing counsel) have been doing. We learned on Friday that her defence is that she was suffering from depression and had a mental breakdown last autumn in the days leading up to her poisoning of Mr Heywood. If the details of her mental state are true, she has my sincere sympathies, and if that is what it takes for the Chinese authorities to justify not executing her when she has confessed to deliberate murder, then I’m relieved (I’m opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances).

But I can’t help being reminded of the last Chinese trial involving a UK citizen which British consular staff were permitted to attend, that of Mr Akmal Shaikh, convicted of bringing four kilos of heroin into China and executed in December 2009. Mr Shaikh impressed virtually everyone who had contact with him after his arrest as being severely mentally ill and delusional, with the judge and prosecutors openly laughing at the bizarre statements he made at trial. Yet the Chinese authorities refused to have him assessed by a psychiatrist unless he first presented evidence of his mental illness; in order to get permission see a psychiatrist, he first had to have a psychiatrist’s opinion that he needed to see a psychiatrist.

In executing Mr Shaikh, the PRC disregarded the provision in Article 18 of the 1997 Criminal Law for “mental patients” either to be deemed not criminally responsible for their actions, or to receive a lighter punishment. Mr Shaikh was a very vulnerable man cruelly taken advantage of by the people who gave him drugs to carry into China. Representations from British diplomats that his mental illness should be taken into account were brushed aside by Chinese authorities determined to make him the last victim of the Opium Wars – to convince the world, as if anyone needed convincing, that the days were gone when British people could bring drugs into China with impunity.

Gu Kailai’s trial has been compared to that of the Gang of Four in December 1980. Since that show trial took place, many things have changed in the Chinese legal system, but some things have not. The conviction rate in the criminal courts remains at 99.1%, with a guilty verdict nearly inevitable once a suspect is charged and the police, not prosecutors, dominating charging decisions. Defence lawyers can be convicted of perjury if they challenge police evidence, e.g. if their client attempts to withdraw a confession obtained through torture, under the notorious Article 306, known as “Big Stick (dabang) 306”, of the Criminal Law.

If the acceptance of Gu Kailai’s defence meant that Article 18 was going to be respected more widely in China’s courts, that would be a cheering development. But all it really shows is that pre-determined verdicts in criminal cases in the PRC are still too often decided based on who the accused is and what outcome the political system needs, and not on the evidence.

Jackie Sheehan is Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute and Associate Professor of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

Bo Xilai – The Plot Thickens

By Mike Bastin

While we should all welcome the recent news of the re-investigation into the death of Mr. Neil Heywood, the British businessman who died under suspicious circumstances in November last year, it is also an opportune time to gain some understanding of the intense rivalry within at the top of China’s usually secretive political system.

The arrest of Bo’s wife in connection with Mr Heywood’s death appears very dramatic and sudden, but let’s remember that the death took place last November and some sort of ‘investigation’ took place then, concluding that death due to excessive alcohol consumption was the cause.

This announcement of a re-investigation also takes place amid intense speculation about the future of Bo, one ofChina’s most colourful and charismatic politicians, asChinaprepares for a changeover in its Party leadership.

It will become more and more clear that Mr. Heywood’s death is being used by forces opposed to Bo’s increasing political influence (Bo was tipped to become promoted to China’s Politburo, the group of 9 politicians who form the highest organ of the Government). Bo’s recent suspension from his Party position was also announced almost within the same press release as the detention of his wife. Interestingly Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, has been referred to as Bo Gu on official Party press releases, which is not at all common. Married Chinese women rarely take their husband’s family name, keeping their own family name, and Gu is also from a prominent family with connections high-up in the Party and has pursued her own professional career as a lawyer. The attribution ‘Bo Gu’, therefore, can only represent a clear attempt at associating Bo with whatever criminal activities his wife has committed, allegedly.

This re-investigation does not represent some sort of ‘opening up’ of the political system, and society in general, inChina, nor has it been influenced at all by the British government’s request for re-examination of the case. Instead, it reflects the intense, and increasingly internecine, battles between rival factions that riddle the Chinese Communist Party at all levels.

The Chinese media reporting of this incident suggests further that China remains a very closed, controlled society. Chinese TV and newspaper broadcasts present little detail and no further analysis other than spouting, verbatim the latest official Party press release. The British broadsheets, in stark contrast, continue to run away with rumour and intrigue.

It seems inevitable that Bo himself will now be investigated and imprisoned on corruption charges and that his career and influence is over. This has little to do with Bo’s alleged corrupt practices though and much more to do with the threat he is seen to pose to those at the top of the Party. This provides us with a rare glimpse into the unstable nature of the Party’s operation, despite an apparently cohesive outward presentation.

China’s new leadership ‘team’ which should be in place later this year, need to move very quickly to demonstrate that they genuinely favour ‘open’ and ‘accountable’ government.

However, at a time when China’s economy is experiencing a slowdown for the first time in more than 10 years, such Party infighting and instability will add further to the pressure for major and irreversible reform inChina’s political and economic system. Watch this space for further dramatic announcements.

Mike Bastin is PhD student at School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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