Skip to main content

China murder trial a rigged spectacle

By Donald Clarke, Special to CNN
August 20, 2012 -- Updated 1545 GMT (2345 HKT)
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
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT