Bo Xilai Wife Charged With Neil Heywood Murder in Largest Chinese Controversy in Decades

Gu Kailai, the wife of Chinese politician Bo Xilai, along with Zhang Xiaojun, her family aide, was charged last week for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. If convicted for intentional homicide, Kailai may be imprisoned for 10 years to life or face the death penalty. The trial is scheduled to take place in Hefei sometime in August. 

In a political scandal wrought with intrigue and apprehension from China's political elite, the murder has garnered much scrutiny from the international media. The controversy started with the discovery of Heywood's body in a hotel last November. It has been suspected that Heywood was held down and forced to drink cyanide. Subsequent news reports have revealed that Heywood was a close business associate with Kailai who had helped her son, Bo GuaGua, to attend a private school. Gu Kailai said she was trying to protect her family from Heywood, but as of now her motive is still unclear.

This trial comes at a sensitive time with the upcoming 18th People's Congress where a major transition in China's top leadership is to take place. Once a forerunner for the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee (the highest decision-making body in China), Gu Kailai’s husband, Bo Xilai, was demoted when Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, requested asylum at an American embassy in February. Lijun revealed the scandal of the Heywood murder and the cover-up to American officials, but eventually left the embassy.

The impending trial and analyses of Gu Kailai's motives have dominated international headlines. However, there is speculation that the emphasis on Bo Xilai's wife in Chinese media is to detract attention from the disunity within the Chinese Communist Party that was exposed by the scandal. Xilai's downfall may have had more to do with his populist, Mao Zedong-inspired approach to politics in a country where the ruling party asserts control by stifling dissenting voices. The Chongqing party secretary instituted effective social reforms during his tenure that made him a leading figure who stressed egalitarianism over authoritarianism. What was probably the tipping point came during President Hu Jintao's visit to Chongqing, when he discovered that he was being wiretapped by Xilai. Apparently, Xilai had previously spied on other top officials, but this incident was seen as a direct challenge to central authorities. According to Al Jazeera, Bo Xilai's whereabouts are currently unknown. 

Chinese netizens have been discussing the issue on microblogging sites such as Sina Weibo, while circumventing censors by using keywords such as "prosecution.” Comments have ranged from criticism of holding the trial in a court far removed from the place of original jurisdiction to outrage at the news story for eclipsing the report of the Beijing flood on Saturday that has killed 77 people so far. Although millions of comments regarding the case have flooded social media platforms, commentary on the case in traditional Chinese media aside from the Xinhua statement has been scarce. 

Patrick Devillers, the French architect who is closely tied to the political and business dealings of Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai, is being held in Beijing to serve as an important witness to the case.