Gu Kailai

Gu Kailai, the high-flying lawyer who descended to murder

Hard-driving lawyer, daughter of a hero and wife of a top leader, Gu Kailai finally upstaged the Communist Party leadership itself

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 2:59pm

The accepted behaviour for the wives of China's top leaders is to be seen rarely and heard even less. Long gone are the days when Jiang Qing , the wife of Mao Zedong , stirred up chaos within the party through her vociferous bids for power, only to end up jailed for life.

Today, few can name the wives of most leaders. 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.

Thanks to her prominence, her murder trial has upstaged the build-up to China's once-in-a-decade leadership transition, which is expected to be held in Beijing this autumn.

Before her trial analysts said Gu was likely to be blamed for not only her alleged crimes but also her husband's offences. This is very much like Jiang, whom the party blamed for all Mao's mistakes made during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Gu's high profile is due at least in part to an ambition virtually equal to that of her once-glamorous husband. She had a successful legal career, winning high-profile cases in the United States, and some fame through her book, Uphold Justice in America, which was made into a popular television series.

Denver lawyer Ed Byrne, whom Gu hired to represent Chinese companies, recalled in his impression of her in The Wall Street Journal in April that she "seemed like the Jackie Kennedy of China". This was soon picked up and republished worldwide, with pictures of her looking slender but vigorous.

When Gu was in the dock at the Hefei Intermediate People's Court in the eastern province of Anhui on August 9, she maintained her composure. The images from her trial shown on state-run television depicted a well-groomed woman, with a hint of a smile, which struck some people as odd.

During her seven-hour trial, according to state news agency Xinhua, prosecutors said Gu administered poison to 41-year-old British businessman Neil Heywood in a hotel room in Chongqing in November, assisted by a family aide, Zhang Xiaojun .

She was charged with intentional homicide and did not contest the charges.

The trial did not go into any allegations of financial crimes. Before his downfall Bo had told the media that his wife's law firm had closed and that she became a stay-at-home mother a long time ago. 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, which he oversaw as party secretary.

Xinhua's reports on the trial said Heywood threatened Gu's only son, Bo Guagua , providing her with a motive for killing the British businessman.

"During those days last November, I suffered a mental breakdown after learning that my son was in jeopardy," Xinhua quoted her as telling the court.

The drama burst into the open in February when Wang Lijun , the former police chief of Chongqing and her husband's closest ally, sought refuge in the US consulate in Chengdu . Wang, who now faces trial himself, left the consulate more than 24 hours later and was flown to Beijing for detention after giving himself up to a vice-minister from the powerful state security ministry.

Reuters reported that Wang had angered Bo by claiming Gu was involved in Heywood's death. The Briton had been close to Bo Guagua and helped him to enrol at private schools in Britain. He also allegedly helped Gu smuggle family money out of the country to invest overseas.

Xinhua refereed to Gu as "Bogu Kailai," a combination of her and her husband's family names. Some observers have suggested that Xinhua's use of an outdated practice, which is 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 also roped in French architect Patrick Devillers, 52, who lived in China during the 1990s and was once 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 negotiations between Cambodia, China and France, Devillers boarded a plane for Shanghai to take part in the investigation.

Cambodian Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said in July that Devillers had left for China voluntarily "after consulting with legal experts", and that Beijing had given assurances the Frenchman would be allowed to return within 60 days "if there are no problems".

Gu is the youngest of five daughters from 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 Tung Kong Security Printing. The company was responsible for printing the official tickets of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, according to the mainland's Time Weekly.

Gu Wangning owns US$5 million in Tung Kong shares as its third-largest shareholder as well as 8.8 per cent in Beijing Zhongjiahua Information Technology. Bloomberg reported she served as director of several other firms.

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 is also the brother of Li Danyu, Bo's first wife.

After working as a butcher during the Cultural Revolution, Gu Kailai became a lawyer after graduating from Peking University with a degree in 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 They married two years later.

"He was very much like my father, who was an extremely idealistic person," Gu told the media.

Bo Guagua, their only son, was born the following year. Like his celebrity parents, Bo Guagua has 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.

Gu became one of China's most prominent lawyers with the firm she set up in Beijing, Kailai Law Firm. Her reputation as a tough lawyer 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".

In her book, Gu wrote: "Courage is more important than wisdom." As she settles into her new life in prison, she will have time to reflect on the importance of both history and wisdom.