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Gu Kailai, China's 'Jackie Kennedy'

By Peter Shadbolt, for CNN
August 19, 2013 -- Updated 0455 GMT (1255 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gu Kailai found guilty of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood
  • She's married to Bo Xilai, once seen as a rising star of Chinese politics
  • Heywood was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room in November 2011
  • Scandal created turmoil at top of Chinese politics during leadership transition

(CNN) -- Funny, personable, attractive and charismatic are just some of the words used to describe Gu Kailai.

The wife of Bo Xilai -- a one-time rising star of the Chinese Communist Party -- once had it all: a powerful husband, a dynamic career and vast wealth.

But it all unraveled in November 2011 when Gu and her household aide Zhang Xiaojun poisoned British businessman Neil Heywood in a Chongqing hotel room.

During her one-day trial the following August, Gu issued a statement saying she didn't deny the accusations levied against her, but "accepted all the facts written in the indictment" -- including poisoning Heywood at a time when she thought her son's life was in danger, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

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"During those days last November, I suffered a mental breakdown after learning my son was in jeopardy," Gu, 53, said shortly before the trial concluded. "The tragedy, which was created by me, was not only extended to Neil, but also to several families."

She eventually received a suspended death sentence, with Zhang given nine years in jail.

Timeline: Bo Xilai's fall from grace

Gu's world started crumbling when she and Zhang were arrested in April 2012. The same day, Xinhua announced that Bo had been stripped of his seats on the Communist Party's Central Committee and Politburo, the nation's ruling organs, for an unspecified "serious breach of regulations."

Ambitious and outgoing, Gu typified the international outlook of the second generation of China's political elite. She has even been described by some as the "Jackie Kennedy of China."

Gu and her husband were both descendents of China's revolutionary heros -- Gu from Major-General Gu Jingsheng, a prominent revolutionary military figure, and Bo from Bo Yibo, considered one of the "eight immortals" of the revolution that created modern China.

These associations may have fostered the connections essential to getting ahead in the new China of the past three decades. But in the 1960s, Gu and her husband were targets during the political upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. Bo spent almost five years in re-education camps as a youth, and published reports say Gu was forced to work in a textile factory and a butcher's shop as a 10 year old.

These hardships only served to galvanize the phenomenal ambition of the couple, analysts say.

Fluent in English, Gu is a lawyer who took a leading role in a legal battle in the United States involving several Chinese firms, eventually winning the lawsuit for the Chinese companies. She later wrote a book about the legal fight called "Winning a Lawsuit in the United States."

Gu's involvement in Heywood's murder may have remained undetected, if not for former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun.

In February 2012, Wang fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu where he alleged that Bo had covered up Heywood's murder.

Bo was later stripped of his post as Chongqing's party chief and his memberships in the Politburo, Central Committee, and Communist Party. In late July, he was charged with bribery, corruption and abuse of power.

Gu is currently serving a suspended death which likely be commuted to life imprisonment if she doesn't commit any crimes during the first two years.

CNN's Jaime FlorCruz contributed to this report.

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