(HEFEI, China) — As if the 2012 Olympics in London were not providing enough drama, the murder trial for Gu Kailai, the wife of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai, begins Thursday in Hefei.
Kailai was indicted last November in connection with the death of Brit Neil Heywood in the southwestern city of Chongqing last. Heywood was once an advisor with financial ties to the Chinese political family.
Bo Xilai had for years been a powerful, rising member of the Communist party in charge of Chongqing. He fell from grace in spectacular fashion last spring. His own police chief, Wang Lijun, sought refuge at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, reportedly presenting U.S. officials with incriminating evidence of corruption against both Xilai and Kailai. Lijun feared for his own life because of his direct connection to them both. He is believed to be held by authorities in Beijing, but has not been seen or heard from for months.
The drama comes at a particularly sensitive time for China. Not only is it the most high profile political scandal in a generation, it involves both the U.K. and the U.S. and comes as the Chinese leadership prepares to undergo a once-a-decade change of power.
Kailai is not being tried for corrupt financial practices; a sign the government may have been wary of setting a precedent for exposing the shady practices of top party members in Chinese leadership. She is also considered the most exposed of the three players (including Xilai and Lijun) in this cloak and dagger drama and the only one who could take the fall without directly shaming the party. She has, for example, no power base or close allies (she and her husband are reportedly estranged).
On the murder charge, she will most likely be found guilty (China has a 98 percent conviction rate and often carries the death penalty). The trial is being described as nothing more than show; Kailai — a lawyer herself — was told she had to use local lawyers selected by the government and by some accounts is making no effort to refute charges.
But she could receive leniency; it is noteworthy that state-run media has published her mea culpa as protective action taken on behalf of her son, Bo Guagua. He recently received his masters degree from Harvard University, and is believed to still be living in the U.S. He spoke out on the eve of his mother’s trial. In a written statement to CNN he said, “I have faith the facts will speak for themselves.”
Some here are comparing this trial to that of another party leader’s wife, Mao Zedong’s widow Jiang Qing. She was tried in 1980 in connection with the uprising in Tiananmen Square. Qing and three others, known as the Gang of Four, were tried and convicted for masterminding political upheaval at the time.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Steve Visser and Masoud Popalzai, CNN
Claire Moran, CNN
Ralph Ellis and Steve Almasy, CNN
Emanuella Grinberg, CNN