James Zimmerman is an American lawyer living and working in China since 1998, and the author of the China Law Deskbook (American Bar Association, 3rd Ed. 2010).
It came as no surprise when, on Aug. 20, 2012, Gu Kailai, the wife of ousted Communist Party official Bo Xilai was found guilty of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood and given a suspended death sentence. It also came as no surprise that the trial was over with before it even got started.
Most likely, authoritarian justice was employed to prevent the revelation of toxic facts embarrassing to the Party. Simply put, the trial and sentencing was rehearsed and stage-managed, and the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Anyone that thinks justice was served is wholly mistaken.
We only have part of the story; the rest of it has been buried and may be dealt with in the parallel universe known as the Party disciplinary process. The involvement of many other people in the crime and resulting cover-up, including Bo Xilai himself and Chongqing’s former police chief Wang Lijun, who tried in vain to declare political asylum at the United States Consulate in Chengdu, is still unclear.
While the Party can man-handle its own people using managed justice, the results of this trial provide little solace to the family and friends of Neil Heywood, who appears to share some fault in his own murder. Indeed, the official media in China has been feeding the argument to the public that Ms. Gu would likely receive a suspended death sentence for a number of mitigating factors, including that Heywood purportedly threatened Ms. Gu’s son.
If this is indeed a valid defense, where are the facts indicating that Heywood brought on his own demise? Without substantiation, this allegation is a figment of someone’s imagination, an insult to Heywood and something that the Party apparently has latched onto for political expediency. But the same defense certainly doesn’t apply to Zhang Xiaojun, the Bo family aide who was also found guilty but given a lighter sentence of nine years in prison for his role in the murder. What’s his excuse for leniency?
While, in general, the results may be fair, given that Ms. Gu and Mr. Zhang are guilty of premeditated murder and will spend much time in prison, the results will never to be fully understood without transparency and a degree of judicial independence from the political process.
Foreign business, with much at stake in China, should not view this case as an acceptable outcome but as a case that brings more uncertainty to a tenuous legal system. In run-of-the-mill business disputes, foreigners don’t stand a chance in a Chinese court if Party-politics takes a priority, as it did in Ms. Gu’s case.
This case is a reminder that the judicial system in China is not independent, that politics trumps the law and that Party politics trumps the pursuit of justice. And everybody in and out of the system in China knows it.