- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 7, 2012

HEFEI, China — The wife of a fallen Chinese leader goes on trial Thursday on charges of murdering a British businessman in a politically charged case that may have little to do with whether she really killed him.

Instead, the trial of Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, is seen largely as a tightly managed way for the leadership to cauterize a political scandal that has embarrassed the Communist Party.

“The men at the top have already made their decisions, and in conspicuous political trials like this, that’s where the decision is made,” said Perry Link, a Princeton University emeritus professor of East Asian studies. “So the trial, whatever the results and whatever the arguments, it will be theater, just theater.”

The scandal has drawn attention to bare-knuckled infighting that politicians prefer to keep behind closed doors — particularly at a time when the government is preparing for a crucial once-a-decade political transition that will install a new generation of leaders. Until his fall, Mr. Bo was considered a contender for a top job.

Key among the central leadership’s main objectives in Mrs. Gu’s trial is to keep the focus tightly on the murder case and not on larger allegations of corruption that could further taint the communist regime, experts say.

Beijing also will closely orchestrate publicity to try to convince the domestic audience that the trial has been fair and the international community that justice has been served in the slaying of a foreigner.

“It’s pretty clear that to be part of this ruling power elite in China lets people get very, very rich. And Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai are only one example of that power,” Mr. Link said. “It’s that big pattern that makes the party so nervous about how to handle this case.”

Mrs. Gu and a household aide, Zhang Xiaojun, are accused of poisoning Neil Heywood, a longtime associate of the Bo family, in November in the southwestern mega-city of Chongqing, where Mr. Bo was party chief until his ouster this spring.

In announcing Mrs. Gu’s indictment, the official Xinhua News Agency has said she had a falling out with Heywood over money and worried that her son’s safety was threatened.

Xinhua made clear the government considers the verdict a foregone conclusion. “The facts of the two defendants’ crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial,” the report said.

If convicted, Mrs. Gu and Mr. Zhang face punishment ranging from more than 10 years’ imprisonment to a life sentence or the death penalty.

It will be tricky to get the public to perceive the trial as just, said Cheng Li, a Chinese elite politics expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

A severe sentence for Mrs. Gu might make her seem a scapegoat for the sins of her husband, regardless of whether she was directly involved in the slaying, Mr. Li said.

However, if the household aide, Mr. Zhang, is sentenced to death but not Mrs. Gu, it could be construed along class lines: “That would sound like the princelings’ lives are far more valuable than others’,” Mr. Li said.

As daughter of a prominent Communist revolutionary, Mrs. Gu is considered a “princeling,” with an exalted status.

Mrs. Gu and Mr. Zhang will be defended by government-appointed lawyers instead of lawyers hired by their families, fueling concerns about fairness.



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