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

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