Skip to main content

China murder trial a rigged spectacle

By Donald Clarke, Special to CNN
updated 11:45 AM EDT, Mon August 20, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gu Kailai, wife of the disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, is charged with murder
  • Donald Clarke: Her one-day trial was a spectacle for the benefit of the public
  • He says few doubt that Gu's sentence has been determined by the Communist Party
  • Clarke: The Gu case tells us that the Chinese legal system is still subservient to politics

Editor's note: Donald Clarke is a professor at George Washington University Law School. He founded Chinalaw, an Internet listserv on Chinese law, and writes the Chinese Law Prof Blog.

(CNN) -- One of the most watched cases in China in the last few decades reached a conclusion of sorts on August 20th as Gu Kailai was declared guilty of murder and sentenced to death with a two-year suspension, meaning an almost certain commutation.

The one-day trial of Gu on August 9th was, quite literally, a spectacle: something meant to be watched. (But not recorded, apparently, except by approval, even pencils were confiscated from the pre-selected audience.)

Gu, the wife of the fallen high-ranking Chinese politician Bo Xilai, had been charged in the death of Neil Heywood, a British businessman. Gu confessed to poisoning Heywood, allegedly because he threatened her son following a botched business deal.

The case has caught the attention of many because of the prominent status of the defendant and its steamy mix of allegations of murder, corruption, and even sex. But does it tell us anything new or interesting about the Chinese legal system? I think not.

Donald Clarke
Donald Clarke

China's legal system is heavily politicized. The Communist Party controls key appointments through a nontransparent process. Judges have no security of tenure and can be dismissed at any time. Courts must answer to local governments, who hold the purse strings and pay judges' salaries. The court president, typically an official who hears no cases, can effectively dictate the decision in any case, whatever the judges who heard the case might think. And while there's no doubt that in many cases politicians don't interfere -- who has the time? -- the system as a whole does not give courts and judges the resources to resist orders from senior politicians when they do come.

Few doubt that those orders have come in the Gu case, in all likelihood from the summit of political power in China, the Standing Committee of the Communist Party's Political Bureau. Before his fall, Gu's husband seemed headed for the Standing Committee himself. This makes the case too politically important to be left to chance, that is, to the whims of a judge deciding on the basis of evidence presented in court. Certain questions must be avoided: What did Bo Xilai know and when? Can powerful politicians in China cover up a murder?

Trial adjourns, no verdict for Gu
Bo Xilai's wife on trial
Will scandal bring change to China?
Timeline: Bo Xilai's downfall

As for Gu's sentence, that too couldn't be left to chance. Bo Xilai may be in disgrace, but he was still a high flyer before his descent. The post-Mao leadership has established a solid tradition of not killing losers in political fights, and it's in the interest of everyone to extend that protection at least as far as spouses. Gu's suspended death sentence was widely predicted and comes as no surprise at all; such sentences are virtually always commuted to life imprisonment after two years, and can ultimately be reduced down to as little as fifteen years following commutation.

Timeline: Bo Xilai's fall from grace

Given all of this, most China-watchers assume that proceedings in this case have been tightly controlled to ensure that only the officially approved narrative emerges. They assume that the verdict was decided in Beijing before the opening gavel sounded, and that the proceedings were merely a performance for the benefit of the public, a kind of judicial Shakespeare-in-the-park, but without the drama.

That's the conventional wisdom. And at times like this, it's the job of the think-outside-the-box expert to explain why the conventional wisdom is wrong. But it's not. In fact, the trial is as predictable as it is banal. If anything is surprising, it's the degree to which it utterly fails to upset our assumptions about how Chinese politics and the legal system work.

A criminal trial, for example, is normally at the place of the crime or where the defendant lives. But Gu's trial took place in Hefei. We all know the reason: too many possible sympathizers in Chongqing. The decision to have it in Hefei was political, not legal.

Gu seems to have tried to hire a lawyer experienced in defending anti-corruption cases, as is her right under Chinese law. But one account of the trial says the government vetoed her choice, and she had to be represented by a local lawyer with no known experience in criminal law.

Chinese law generally requires trials to be public, and the official report of the proceedings ritualistically invoked the term "public trial" to describe the proceedings. But they were in no sense public: the audience was carefully selected.

The real lesson in this case, then, is twofold. First, it offers us no reason to change our understanding of the Chinese legal system as directly subservient to politics when sufficiently powerful politicians choose to get involved. Second, it reflects the cynicism that seems so pervasive in Chinese society. Nobody I know, Chinese or foreign, with the remotest knowledge of the Chinese legal system thinks that anything of importance will be decided as a result of what went on at the Gu trial.

Those who were waiting for a sign of fundamental change in the system will have to keep waiting.

Editor's Note: This op-ed has been updated to reflect news of the verdict of Gu Kailai.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donald Clarke.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT