BEIJING (Reuters) - A paranoid killer or a persecuted scapegoat — Gu Kailai, the woman at the centre of China’s most politically explosive criminal case in a generation, remains an enigma.
A court in the central city of Hefei handed the wife of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai a suspended death sentence on Monday, effectively life imprisonment, after she confessed to killing British businessman Neil Heywood, an ex-family friend.
The case has ended the career of Bo, a well-connected and ambitious politician who had made enemies in Beijing with his populist leadership style and with his strong appeal to Maoist leftists within the ruling Communist Party.
Gu, 53, is seen by many Bo supporters as a scapegoat, framed by flimsy evidence that was not properly tested, compelled at the 11th hour to make a confession as her best chance of avoiding the death sentence. She agreed not to appeal.
For many others, she is China’s Lady Macbeth, a cold-blooded woman of doubtful sanity who felt she could kill with impunity.
Before the murder scandal surfaced early this year, when police began treating Heywood’s death in southwest China last November as suspicious, Gu had a reputation as an intelligent and glamorous woman, a career lawyer who dressed elegantly.
She had used Heywood, an expatriate living with his family in Beijing, to help her son get into Harrow, the exclusive British boarding school, and then into Oxford University. According to the unchallenged official version of the case against her, she killed Heywood after a business deal turned sour and he made threats against her son, Bo Guagua.
On Monday, after a closed-door hearing for verdict and sentencing, a court official added that she had been suffering “psychological impairment” at the time of the murder.
A source with close ties to the Bo family described her as having been in a paranoid state of mind. “She was convinced her husband’s political rivals are out to assassinate her husband and son,” the source said on the eve of Gu’s trial this month.
The prosecutors’ case against Gu emerged on August 9 after a seven-hour trial that was closed to non-official media. According to a court statement, prosecutors described how Gu had enlisted the help of her aide, Zhang Xiaojun, to prepare a poison and to accompany Heywood from Beijing to far southwestern Chongqing, a vast municipality where Bo was party chief.
She met Heywood, 41, at a Chongqing hotel and they began drinking. He became drunk, vomited and then asked for a glass of water. Gu then poured cyanide into Heywood’s mouth and scattered capsules around his room to make it appear as if he had been popping pills, according to the statement.
During the trial, Gu did not enter a plea to the murder charge and only a day later, after the hearing had ended, did she issue a confession — through official news agency Xinhua. In it, according to Xinhua, she said she had suffered a mental breakdown and killed Heywood because he had made a threat against her son, Guagua, over the failed business deal.
“During those days last November, I suffered a mental breakdown after learning that my son was in jeopardy,” Xinhua quoted Gu as saying in the confession.
The court, though, raised doubts on Monday over whether Heywood really meant to harm Guagua. Heywood’s family has declined to speak to reporters about the trial.
Bo’s career came to a crashing halt after Wang Lijun, the top policeman in his power base, the city of Chongqing, fled to the nearest American consulate in February with the claim that Bo had covered up Heywood’s murder.
Within weeks of the allegations emerging, Bo, 63, was ousted from the elite Politburo, sacked from his post as party chief in Chongqing and placed in custody. Gu and Zhang were charged.
It has been a long fall from grace for Gu, one of modern China’s first law graduates and the daughter of a famous general. She once wrote about her success defending Chinese companies in an American court.
Gu had become depressed and isolated as her charismatic husband campaigned for a spot in the new generation of party leadership that takes over this fall, sources who knew her said.
Other family sources say she also suffers from cancer.
None of the reports could be verified.
Despite enjoying great privilege, Gu lost her professional identity as her husband’s political career flourished. In China, most wives of high-ranking cadres fade discreetly into the background and many high-ranking women are unmarried.
Bo and Gu met in the early 1980s and were married in 1986, news reports have said. Bo, who was divorced at the time, has a son from his first marriage.
Bo, Gu and Guagua, the couple’s only child, were unusual in seeking the spotlight. Her much-photographed short, chic haircut contrasted with the frumpy look favored by most leaders’ wives.
When Bo governed the port city Dalian in the 1990s, Gu ran a law firm and consultancy. Journalist Jiang Weiping, later imprisoned for documenting corruption in Bo’s circle, claims her firms channeled bribes from Taiwanese and foreign investors.
She went by the English name “Horus”, referring to the falcon-headed Egyptian god of war, and depicted herself as a fearless attorney in her book, “Uphold Justice in America”.
She stopped work to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest with Bo, whose political star was rising, but the decision appeared to have taken a toll on her.
“Ever since she stepped down, she lives like a hermit and doesn’t attend any social events. When dad wants her to come to events, she won’t,” Bo Guagua said in a 2009 interview with the Chengdu Evening News, later expunged from its website.
“I can understand, she is most unwilling to exist in dad’s shadow, and lose herself. Right now she reads all day and studies comparative literature.”
For a time, Gu channeled her considerable energy into her son’s education, tapping Heywood to help get him into school and moving with the boy to Britain. On her orders, Heywood pulled strings with British expatriates in Beijing to help get the youngster into Oxford, said one woman who met him then.
While in Britain, Gu attempted to go into business, selling promotional hot air balloons to Dalian and other Chinese cities. Heywood assisted with the arrangements.
She registered a company in the south of England with French architect Patrick Devillers, who left Dalian and divorced his Chinese wife around the same time. In June, he was detained in Cambodia by local police on China’s request and he later flew to China on his own volition to help with the investigation.
Bo and Gu both came from pedigreed revolutionary families, with connections that brought power and wealth. Elite Chinese live in a world of infighting and suspicion, enduring repeated corruption probes, phone tapping and worries about betrayal.
Gu’s paranoia after she returned to China could have intensified in the febrile atmosphere of Chongqing, where the couple moved in 2007.
Bo launched a bloody “strike black” anti-mafia campaign against alleged gangsters, featuring lurid tales of murder and corruption. He promoted choral songs from the Cultural Revolution, a dog-eat-dog period of political chaos in which his own mother died in the custody of fanatical Red Guards.
For Gu, the songs would have revived memories of a time when her parents were purged and she and her sisters were left to fend for themselves.
Her behavior became unstable around the time of Heywood’s death in November last year. She strode into a meeting of police officials wearing the uniform of a major-general — the same rank as her father. In a rambling speech she told them that she was on a mission to protect Wang.
Less than three months later, he accused her of murder. (Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Chris Buckley in Beijing; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Mark Bendeich and Paul Tait)