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Prof. Nicholas Howson, China law expert 

Prof. Nicholas Howson, China expert,  considers the Gu Kailai trial

By John Masson
August 9, 2012

The murder trial of Gu Kailai, wife of former Chinese Politburo member Bo Xilai, started and ended Aug. 9 in the city of Hefei, Anhui Province. Aside from the sensational nature of the trial—the murder of a British citizen in Chongqing by Bo's wife and her household employee while Bo Xilai was the Party Secretary for that huge municipality in southwest China—the proceedings attracted worldwide attention for those interested in Chinese politics and the state of China's legal reform, said Prof. Nicholas Howson, a Chinese law expert at the University of Michigan Law School.

He said the case is a fascinating one.

"This may be another instance of modern China's use of law and legal institutions in the service of entirely political goals, albeit in an extremely high-profile and sensitive case," Prof. Howson said. "Most critical is the way in which Chinese citizens perceive the trial and the inevitable sentencing. If the proceedings appear fair and transparent, and the punishment deserved, then China's slow march to rule of law will be enhanced. If, on the contrary, the Gu Kailai murder trial is understood as a useful cudgel employed in cut-throat political contention, then China's legal development—and the popular perception of it—will be impacted negatively."

Politically, the trial can be understood as part of the broad attack that has derailed the ascent of Gu's husband Bo Xilai to the Standing Committee of the Politburo at the precise moment that the PRC is choosing a new slate of national leaders, Prof. Howson said. The state has not alleged any criminal wrongdoing by Bo Xilai himself, although he is under a type of Communist Party house arrest for "serious breaches of party discipline."

The failure to charge his wife for corruption-related offenses in addition to shocking allegations of "intentional homicide" likely means that corruption charges—long the staple of intra-Party political attacks against high fliers—will not be leveled against Bo Xilai himself, he said. Legally, the meanings of the Gu trail are more complex. Certainly, central government authorities trumpet the proceedings as an embodiment of the idea that no one in China is above the law, not even the wife of a man until recently in the running to be China’s top leader, and the son of a revered Old Revolutionary and comrade-in-arms of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

On the other hand, Prof. Howson said, the prosecution is already associated with significant defects, including trying the case in Anhui Province (which apparently has nothing to do with the principals of the case or the locus of the crime), the drumbeat of pre-judgment in the official press ("The facts are clear, the evidence is irrefutable and substantial…" says the Xinhua news service), difficulties in accessing independent counsel for the defendants, and highly credible statements concerning an already-determined sentence: a suspended death sentence to be commuted later.

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