The accepted behaviour for wives of China’s top leaders is to be seen rarely and heard even less. Long gone are the days when Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, stirred up chaos within the party through her vociferous bids for power, only to end up jailed for life. Few in the public could name the wife of most Communist leaders today.
That marks Gu Kailai, a hard-driving lawyer, the daughter of a revolutionary hero and the wife of fallen Politburo member Bo Xilai, as a woman apart.
Gu, 53, displays an individual drive virtually equal to her once-glamorous husband. She was gaining success in her legal career winning high-profile cases in the United States, and limited fame through her book Uphold Justice in America, which later was made into a popular TV series.
In an ironic turn of fate, Gu on Monday received a suspended death sentence from a court in Hefei, Anhui province for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood last year. The sentence means that Gu is likely to face life in jail, provided she does not commit offences in the next two years.
Denver lawyer Ed Byrne, whom Gu had hired to represent Chinese companies in her more glorious days in court, recalled his impression of Gu.
“I was very impressed with her. She was very sharp, and fortunately her English was very good,” The Wall Street Journal quoted Byrne as saying.
According to a statement by Bo, his wife’s law firm closed and she became a stay-at-home mum. But well-substantiated reports show the firm’s operations continued as her husband ascended to greater prominence in Chongqing, a region 80 times the size of Hong Kong with a population of 32 million, and which he oversaw as party secretary.
Even Gu’s downfall overshadowed the lead-up to China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition this autumn.
On February, her husband’s closest ally and the former police chief for Chongqing, Wang Lijun, who is now under investigation, sought refuge in the US consulate in Chengdu. Wang left the consulate after more than 24 hours, giving himself up to a vice-minister from the powerful state security ministry and was flown to the capital for detention.
Reuters reported that Wang had angered Bo by claiming Gu was involved in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood. The Briton had been close to the couple’s son Bo Guagua, and helped him enrol at private schools in Britain. Gu also allegedly helped smuggle family money out of the country to invest overseas.
A Xinhua report last month said Gu poisoned Heywood with the help of family aide Zhang Xiaojun last November in Chognqing.
Xinhua refereed to Gu as “Bogu Kailai,” a combination of her and her husband’s name. Some observers have suggested the Xinhua’s use of an outdated practice used today only by Chinese living outside the mainland implied she had foreign residency rights. Under party rules, senior leaders and their families are not allowed to hold foreign citizenship.
The scandal roped in French architect Patrick Henri Devillers, 52, who lived in China during the 1990s and was married to a Chinese woman. Devillers is believed to have been a friend of the couple at one point, and had business dealings with them. Some reports said he had an intimate personal relationship with Gu and that he shared an address with her between 2000 and 2003.
Devillers had been living in Cambodia and was arrested in Phnom Penh in June at the request of Chinese authorities who wanted to question him about Gu and Bo’s financial dealings. After several weeks of back-and-forth between Cambodia, China and France, he boarded a plane voluntarily for Shanghai to participate in the investigation.
Khieu Kanharith, Cambodia’s information minister, told The Wall Street Journal in July the architect had been taken into custody on the mainland for 60 days and would be released if he was innocent.
Gu is the youngest of five daughters in a privileged revolutionary-era family. Her father, Gu Jingsheng, was a prominent general in the People’s Liberation Army and the former deputy party secretary of the Xinjiang committee. Unlike Gu, her sisters focused on business rather than politics.
The eldest sister, Gu Wangjiang, 64, is a Hong Kong resident and owns 30 per cent or US$114 million worth of shares in the mainland-based TungKong Security Printing. The company was responsible for print the official tickets of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, according to mainland’s The Time Weekly.
Gu Wangning owns US$5 million in TungKong shares as its third-largest shareholder as well as 8.8 per cent in Beijing Zhongjiahua Information Technology, a start-up formed in 2010 with registered assets of US$320,000. Bloomberg reported she serves as director of several other companies, including some that Hong Kong company registry records trace to the British Virgin Islands.
Gu Zhengxie, 62, was deputy party secretary of China National Machinery Industry – one of the country’s biggest state-owned companies. The conglomerate makes everything from power grids to tractors.
Gu Dan is the wife of Li Xiaoxue, former discipline chief of the China Securities Regulatory Commission and now a member of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Party. He was also the brother of Li Danyu, Bo’s first wife.
Gu herself worked as a butcher during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, and became a lawyer after graduating from Peking University with a degree on law and international politics.
She met Bo in 1984 while on a research trip to Jin county near Dalian, Liaoning province, where Bo had taken a post as county party secretary, according to the state-run website people.com.cn. They married two years later.
“He was very much like my father, who was an extremely idealistic person,” Gu told the media.
Their only son Bo Guagua was born the following year. Like his celebrity parents, Bo Guagua earned a reputation for a love of high living and preference for luxury sports cars. Gu accompanied him in 1998 on his move to Britain, where he attended a private preparatory school, and later, the elite Harrow School. Bo Guagua went on to Balliol College, Oxford. He graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government after his parents’ detention.
It was around this time that Gu rose to become one of China’s most prominent lawyers. The firm she set up in Beijing, Kailai Law Firm 1995, was doing well, and her reputation as a tough attorney was cemented after she helped several Chinese companies in Dalian win a legal battle in the US in February 1997.
A court-appointed bankruptcy trustee in the state of Alabama had sued the companies for US$1 million after accusing them of attempting to steal trade secrets and of defrauding an American company. Gu succeeded in having the judgment set aside.
She later told China Reading Weekly she did not charge her fee for the case, but was simply “looking for justice”.
Now, on the other side of the dock, Gu may find it is family that save’s her life.