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The Gu trial – it’s all politics but she’s not Madame Mao
The comparisons are probably inevitable. The wife of a powerful Chinese politician goes on trial accused of lurid crimes and misdemeanours. So the one-day hearing into the accusation of murder against Gu Kailai, the wife of Bo Xilai, in Hefei is likened to the trial of Mao’s widow Jiang Qing. That began in 1980 to mark the triumph of Deng Xiaoping over the Gang of Four, of which she had been the leading light.
No rerun of 1980. Looked at objectively, the comparison holds little water. Gu has never been a political figure. She was a high-level lawyer, not a radical agitator stirring up the Red Guards. She is charged with a single crime – the murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood – not the wholesale upsetting of the national system laid at the door of Mao’s wife. She was held accountable for the persecution of 727,542 people and the deaths of 34,274. Gu’s trial was conducted in a city far from the scene of her alleged crimes with journalists excluded. It was wrapped up in a single day, compared with the national spotlight of a special court for the Gang of Four in Beijing and a full trial watched by the foreign press at which Jiang spoke her piece with great force.
Note the differences. It is the differences between the two trials that tell most about the way China has evolved since Mao’s death in 1976. Back then, the allegation was that Jiang Qing headed a plot by a “Counterrevolutionary Clique"; In the case of the BOS, despite dark mutterings about his power lust and what he would have done had he got to the Politburo Standing Committee, the politics have been kept well under the carpet. Gu is depicted as having got rid of Heywood because of a business dispute or as having acted to defend her son from him. She is an apolitical actor in a drama which the Politburo wants to turn into a simple tale of criminal misdemeanor as laid out in our posting.
Bo in limbo. Her husband meanwhile dangles in limbo, suspended from the Communist Party and deprived of his position in Chongqing but not subject to the kind of summary justice meted out to the Gang of Four when the tide turned against them after Mao’s death. The leadership coalition that has lined up against him looks every bit as strong as the coming together of different leadership figures in 1976, and it appears united in the determination to rid the regime of the troublesome princeling. As shown by the continuation of the Party’s disciplinary powers, the legal system has little impact when top-level politics are involved.
Politics rule. And yet one cannot escape the feeling that the careful orchestration of such proceedings by the authorities is not what it used to be. This is not so much because of what goes on in court as because the social context has changed. And one may disregard the handful of Maoist protestors – the leadership has shown its muscle by closing down new left outlets. It is instead that people have become more worldly and see the unrolling of the Bo case for what it is – a power struggle in which Gu was caught up and became the fall figure, as explained in our earlier posting.
If the police chief had not tried to defect and Bo’s foes had not seized the opportunity provided by Neil Heywood’s death to unseat the baron of Chongqing, Gu would have remained untroubled. As her husband rose to the Standing Committee, whatever happened at the resort hotel in the hills would have remained secret. There is indeed a parallel with the fate of Jiang Qing: in the end, it all boils down to politics.