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Friday, December 14, 2018

The Bo Xilai Case: China and the Politics of Murder

     In the Republic of China, a socialist nation of 1.4 billion run by the Communist Party, crime is often inseparable from politics. With about 30,000 criminal homicides a year (if you can trust their statistics), China has a much lower murder rate than the United States with 314 million citizens, and roughly 1,700 unlawful killings every year. The homicide solution rate in China last year was almost 90 percent compared to 63 percent in the U.S. Of course crime is a lot easier to solve in a country with a criminal justice system without the criminal justice.

     Although the Chinese legislature recently reformed China's criminal procedure code to provide legal representation, and protection against forced confessions, the police routinely ignore these civil rights protections. Political dissidents can be detained indefinitely on vague charges of endangering national security (Critics of the recent passage of America's National Defense Authorization Act think we are, in this regard, impersonating China.), and in criminal cases, the militaristic police still use torture as a means of acquiring confessions. (Citizens of China, due to traditional Chinese values, tend to tolerate the torture of criminal suspects. Chinese crime fiction is mostly about catching the bad guy, then torturing the hell out of him.) Unlike in the United States and other western democracies, criminal suspects in China are not presumed innocent, and have no protection against self-incrimination or unreasonable searches and seizures. There is no due process, freedom of the press, or human rights in the Republic of China.

     The top law enforcement agency in China is the National Police Agency (NPA) which is under the Ministry of the Interior. Departments within the NPA include the National Highway Police, the Harbor Police, and the Criminal Investigation Bureau. Subunits within the Criminal Investigation Bureau include the investigation section, the anti-hoodlum unit, the criminal records office, and the forensic science center. On the city and county level, day-to-day law enforcement is carried out by local authorities who answer to the NPA whose leaders appoint the local police chiefs.

The Bo Xilai Case (The Chinese place the surname first.)

     On November 15, 2011, 41-year-old Neil Heywood, a British businessman who worked and lived in Beijing with his Chinese wife Lulu and their two children, was found dead in a hotel room in the southwestern city of Chonquing. According to Heywood's death certificate, he had died of cardiac arrest from the overconsumption of alcohol. This cause of death stunned his family and friends because he was known as a teetotler. Shortly after his death, Chinese officials cremated his body without his family's consent. (Heywood's wife had initially been told that her husband had simply died of a heart attack.)

     In early April 2012, Chinese police arrested Gu Kailai, a prominent Chinese attorney and businesswoman married to Bo Xilai, a high-ranking Chinese leader with a seat on the 25-member Politburo. Mr. Bo's wife was in police custody under suspicion that she and an accomplice had poisoned Mr. Heywood to death (potassium cyanide) over a business dispute. Following Ms. Gu's arrest, ranking members of the Communist Party removed Mr. Bo from the Politburo on grounds he had interfered with the criminal investigation of his wife.

     The Bo family/Heywood case has created the biggest political scandal and shakeup in China since the 1989 protests and massacre in Beijing. Since the ruling elite in China control the news, it was hard to know how much the Chinese people know about the scandal. Back in Great Britain, the story was headline news. In the United States, most of the in-depth reporting was by journalists with The New York Times.

     Neil Heywood, the British businessman found dead in the Chongquing hotel room, attended Harrow, the exclusive boarding school in London before enrolling at Oxford University. Fancying himself as a dashing young adventurer, Heywood, in the late 1980s, crossed the Atlantic in a yacht, and spent a year working for wages along the Florida coast. In the early 1990s, he moved to Dalian, China where he established himself as a business consultant, advising U.S. and British clients on how to do business in China.

     After meeting Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kalai, Heywood moved to Beijing where he took up residence at Le Leman Lake, one of the capital's suburban gated communities. His children, George and Oliva, attended school on the Chinese campus of Britain's Dulwich College.

     Heywood, who drove a S-type Jaguar with a Union Jack bumper sticker, was proud of his native country's empirical history, monarchy, and culture. And he didn't hide his contempt for socialism. To his friends and business associates, he liked to hint that he was a spy in the British Secret Intelligence Service (M-16). (The Foreign Office in London denied any connection to Heywood.) The consensus among those who knew Heywood, on the issue of him being a spy, believed he was a dilettante living a fantasy life.

     Heywood had ingratiated himself with Bo Xilai and his wife by getting their son, Bo Guagua, into Harrow, the $55,000 a year boarding school in London. The now 24-year-old, who has lived more than half his life outside of China, was a graduate student at Harvard University in the United States.

     Bo Xilai, the charismatic 62-year-old son of the legendary revolutionary leader Bo Yibo, had been the party chief of Chongquing, the sprawling metropolitan region in southwest China. Mr. Bo rose to national prominence by successfully cracking down on organized crime. A member of the Central Committee Politburo, Mr. Bo, at the time of his fall from grace, was angling for a promotion to the 9-member Standing Committee, the Communist Party's highest ranking body.

     While Mr. Bo was an extremely popular politician, he had powerful enemies among China's ruling elite who objected to his favoring a larger governmental role in guiding China's growing economy. Certain party leaders were also questioning the source of Bo Xilai's wealth, and suspected he was, through false identities, friends, and relatives (he had an older, very wealthy brother) transferring money to banks and investment houses in Britain and the U.S. When asked how he could afford to sent his son to an expensive school like Harrow, Mr. Bo claimed that his son had been granted a full scholarship. (Bo Guagua's playboy antics at Harrow and Oxford had caused a certain amount of resentment, and embarrassment for his parents.)

     In the Communist Party's upcoming 18th Congress, Bo Xilia had expected to be in the middle of a power struggle over the leadership and control of the Communist Party. Mr. Bo's supporters suspect that the arrest of his wife, and Bo's alleged role in the attempted cover-up, was nothing more than hardball politics, China style.

     Bo Xilai's wife, Gu Kalai, through a firm called Horas Consultancy & Investment, advised foreign clients how to do business in China. She had also been director of eight privately held companies in Hong Kong, and worked closely with Neil Heywood. According to some of her colleagues, Ms. Gu had recently become depressed, neurotic, and paranoid, accusing close business associates of betrayal. She had come under investigation for corruption in 2007, and had allegedly asked Neil Heywood to divorce his wife to show his loyalty to the Bo family. In 2010, she and her husband had a falling-out with Heywood over some business deal. (According to sources close to the Chinese investigation, Heywood had threatened to expose Gu's plan to move large sums of money oversees after a dispute over his cut from the transaction.) Heywood told a few friends that he was concerned for his life, and considered leaving China. The day before he died, Heywood told a friend that he was "in trouble," and had been summoned by the Bo family to Chongquing.

     Wang Lijun, handpicked by Bo Xilia, was Chongquing's chief of police. Following Neil Heywood's death, under pressure from the British government, Wang launched an investigation that revealed how the British businessman had really died. According to Chief Wang, Gu Kailai and a household employee named Zhang Xiaojun, had poisoned Mr. Heywood to death. In February 2012, party leaders in Beijing summoned Chief Wang to give evidence against Gu Kalai. Later, when the chief of police informed Bo Xilai that his wife was under suspicion of murder, Mr. Bo became angry and demoted Mr. Wang.

     In mid-March, high-ranking communist leaders, accusing Bo Xilia of "serious disciplinary violations," removed him from the Politburo, and confined him to house arrest. Fearing for his life, former chief Wang Lijun sought asylum at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, a city 200 miles from Chongquing. During his 36-hour stay inside the consulate, Mr. Wang told American officials that Ms. Gu had plotted to poison Mr. Heywood. He turned the entire police file over to the Americans, and gave them a treasure trove of information regarding the internal Chinese power struggle. Denied asylum, Mr. Wang, after leaving the consulate, was taken into custody. He was under investigation for treason. (According to Chongquing officials, Mr. Wang was suffering from stress, and was receiving "holiday-style medical treatment.")

     In early April 2012, the Chinese police arrested Gu Kailai on the charge of "intentional homicide." According to Chinese homicide investigators, Ms. Gu had poisoned the victim over "a conflict over economic interest."

     On April 12, 2012, the 24-year-old Bo Guagua was seen being escorted out of his luxury apartment near the Harvard University campus by FBI agents.

     The former police chief, Wang Jijun, was convicted in September 2012 on charges of abuse of power, bribery, and defection. The judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison on the promise he would testify against Bo Xilai.
     In November 2012, Gu Kailai was convicted of murdering Neil Heywood. The judge sentenced her to death.
   In July 2013, the Chinese authorities charged Bo Xilai with corruption, bribery, and abuse of power. In September of that year a jury found Bo guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to life behind bars.

     A judge, in December 2015, commuted Gu Kailai's death sentence to life in prison.

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