26 Jul 2012

Murder charge for wife of Chinese politician Bo Xilai

International Editor

Prosecutors charge the wife of disgraced politician Bo Xilai and a family aide with the murder last year of the British businessman, Neil Heywood.

The case of Neil Haywood’s murder in Chongqing in 2011 is at the centre of a messy political scandal involving one of China’s most popular politicians, that has unsettled China‘s leadership ahead of the presidential elections later this year.

Xinhua News Agency reported that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, had a falling out with Briton Mr Heywood over money and worried that it would threaten her and her son’s safety. The first officially issued comment on the case reportedly said that Gu and an aide, Zhang Xiaojun, are alleged to have poisoned Heywood together. Initial reports had put the cause of Heywood’s death down to a heart attack or excessive drinking.

The brief news report is the first official news that the case against Gu is going ahead after an announcement three months ago that she and Zhang were being investigated. At the same time, Bo Xilai was suspended from the powerful Politburo for unspecified discipline violations. There was no reference to Bo, or to any investigation into his conduct, in the report.

The ousting of Bo and the investigation of his wife has presented the Communist Party leadership with its ugliest and most public scandal in nearly two decades. It exposed the party’s secrecy and affirmed the public’s already dim view of corrupt dealings in the party.

“To charge a Politburo member if he was involved in any way in the murder would have sullied the reputation of the Communist Party in ways that would have been too much for the leadership to handle,” said Joseph Fewsmith, a China politics expert at Boston University.

Experts in Chinese politics said that the news of Gu’s prosecution is a sign that the leadership has closed ranks and reached a general agreement about the case. “They have to try to show solidarity, because if they do not do that the consequences are alarming. It would undermine social stability” by sending a signal about divisions in the ranks, said Cheng Li, an elite politics expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

By making the announcement on the eve of the London Olympics, the leadership also likely hopes that public attention will be absorbed watching the Chinese team, instead of circulating political gossip, said Li.

Before he was forcibly removed from the political scene, Bo was one of China’s most powerful and charismatic politicians. He was the son of a revolutionary veteran and party secretary of the huge metropolitan area of Chongqing and was thought to be a leading candidate for a seat in the leadership’s inner sanctum, the Politburo Standing Committee.

Bo led high-profile campaigns to rid his city organized crime and to promote communist culture. But his approach angered some leaders and alienated others with his publicity seeking.