Law as Liturgy: The Show But Do Not Tell Case of Gu Kailai

Reading about the trial of Gu Kailai 谷开来 (aka 薄谷开来; BoGu Horus Kailai) one feels catapulted back in time to a world in which a boxer who trained as an amateur could defeat a drug-fuelled Soviet opponent; a single Vietnam War vet could gun down an entire army of Commies; and Russians didn’t care for their children. Reality was easy to understand, because everything was in its proper place.

This time around, however, something is amiss, and by something I mean the ashes of Neil Heywood, the British business consultant murdered by Gu Kailai and her factotum Zhang Xiaojun 张晓军. Alive Heywood is said to have embodied the values of expat hard work and relative success. But, he also kept commerce with Chongqing Mayor Bo Xilai 薄熙来, a man whose penchant for welfarism and the application of extreme anti-mafia tactics garnered him as many supporters among the people, as enemies among the liberal-minded elite. Heywood helped Bo’s son, Guagua 瓜瓜, gain entrance to prestigious schools in England; he was a business partner of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai; he drove a Jaguar, and on one or two occasions had been a consultant for a company owned by former members of MI6.

When he suddenly died of a ‘heart attack’ at the age of forty-one last November, and his wife agreed to have his body cremated without an autopsy, it seemed to be one of those consular cases that hardly warranted being referred back to the Foreign Office in London. That is until Chongqing’s famed supercop Wang Lijun 王立军, undeterred by the fate of Yuri Nosenko,[1] attempted to defect to the US and embarrassed everyone by bringing a forensic specimen taken from Heywood’s heart (…and nothing else?) to his clandestine meeting with US officials in Chengdu. A week after this curious and gruesome episode people start speculating that Heywood may have been murdered.[2] What has been non-news suddenly, and dramatically made headlines.

It is a challenge to talk with any confidence about a case that only garnered public attention after a would-be defection, particularly if it involves a former Politburo member, his subordinates, his byzantine-like family and their connections, their foreign business partners and supposedly astronomical amounts of money. The Pandora’s Box in which all of these roiling elements tussle is to be kept closed and so, in the larger scheme of things, it will remain. We know all too little, so we’ll have to stick to the acknowledged fact that Neil Heywood was indeed murdered.

Fact and Speculation

Court proceedings confirm drawn-out media speculation that Gu, or BoGu as the Chinese state media (still inexplicably) refers to her, came into conflict with Heywood over economic interests and, when Heywood is said to have threatened her son, Bo Guagua, sequestered thousands of miles away studying, Gu Kailai lured this British former family friend to Chongqing, got him drunk and with the help of her assistant Zhang Xiaojun poisoned him. Gu and Zhang Xiaojun were eventually indicted on charges of murder and tried on 9 August.

Once the tangle of political, economic and military ramifications of the whole incident had been safely relegated to the domain of the law, what a few months ago seemed like a series of intractable problems for the Chinese authorities were reduced to something far more easily handled. On the surface at least what remains are a few nagging questions, each of which can be posited, pondered and answered within the ambit of the particular legal environment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Half-aware of how the narrative trajectory imposed on the case has already circumscribed our ability to think about it, we may indeed speculate as to why Gu Kailai was tried in Hefei; whether she pleaded guilty but sought the court’s indulgence on the basis of diminished responsibility since at the time of the crime she ‘lacked the competence of a normal person’. And now it is left until the authorities to ‘determine a suitable day’ (ze ri 择日) to pronounce a verdict: ten years, fifteen years or a suspended death sentence with a lifetime in custody.

A Trial as Ritual

The most important question should, of course, be whether Gu Kailai received a fair trial in the first place and, in response to this question, there is not one, but three possible answers:

  1. You can appeal to the authority of the system and cleave to the idea that the case of Gu Kailai was handled in accordance with China’s rule of law. According to this logic, she received a fair trial. Those who still harbor doubts about this are either unfamiliar with the peculiarity of China’s local conditions, or are individuals in dire need to fabricate and hawk sensational news stories;
  2. You can condemn the legal system of the People’s Republic of China on procedural grounds, constructing thereby what is a more or less the implicit argument that Chinese law lacks moral legitimacy. Gu couldn’t get a fair trial because PRC criminal procedure does not correspond to the Shadow of the Idea of the Rule of Law. A criminal procedure that does not fit the Idea is, ipso facto, no Criminal Procedure at all; investigations into the case do not thereby constitute an Investigation but are rather a conspiracy between the Party and the judicial organs of the state; an arrest is not Arrest as such but rather an act of illegal detention; and, the trial of Gu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun is not a fair and open operation of the law but instead a show trial held in a kangaroo court, and in front of a vetted public and media audience; or,
  3. You may well claim that the event that took place in Hefei on 9 August was not a trial at all, and not even that much of a show trial since the guilt of the accused had been announced well beforehand by the official Xinhua News Agency which in the announcement of the pending proceedings had declared that the evidence against the plaintiff was ‘irrefutable and substantial’ (犯罪事实清楚,证据确实、充分).

Instead, I would suggest that the process that has just taken place under the watchful but circumscribed eye of the Chinese and international media could better be dubbed as a ‘ritualistic ceremony’. That is, it was an orchestrated event sanctifying the consensus regarding Neil Heywood’s death, one that has been used to divine the mysterious workings of power. Of course, every ceremony requires a liturgy, and in the case of the BoGu Kailai trial everyone has dutifully fulfilled their liturgical responsibilities.

A Secular Liturgy

In all sacerdotal earnestness the party-state isolated the courtroom, the inner sanctum was shrouded in mystery as were those who gathered around the sacrificial altar. The local judiciary acted at the behest of the distant Powers That Be, and officers of the court were but minor players fulfilling their prescribed role as intermediaries between the silent ruling deities and the sacrificial victim. Journalists, both Chinese and international, were honour bound to flock to Hefei, milling in impotent eagerness outside the court only to be refused entry to the sanctum sanctorum. The learned opinions of academics, again, Chinese and international, were eagerly sought and, on cue, they responded to media inquiries and vied to produce exegetical analyses, both of the trial and of the scant information released by the authorities and miscellaneous insiders on and after 9 August. As for the masses, their curiosity was supposed to be staunched by laconic official news reports even as a frenzy of microblog speculation swept the nation.

Subsequently, leaks of in camera proceedings further sparked speculation as to the true intent of Beijing, for the trial is but a precursor to momentous decisions that lie ahead. The average citizen in the street and the international observer alike, befuddled by what has widely been described as a ‘soap opera’, remain blissfully unaware of what is really going on. For her part, Bogu Kailai dutifully confesses. It turns out that the accused (formerly a svelte powerhouse, now a podgy figure in a unisex white shirt and dark jacket) had been ‘less than competent’ at the time of the crime;[3] nonetheless, she has been assisting the authorities in their inquiries about other serious matters of malfeasance. And most conveniently of all, she has admitted her guilt and awaits the just retribution of the People.

We in academia, along with a phalanx of professionals in China, too have become part of the liturgical farrago. Each one of us performs our public duty by churning out information and commentaries on the Bo Xilai-BoGu Kailai-Bo Guagua drama. Others participate or rubberneck in their capacity as lawyers, consular officials, Xinhua journalists, People’s Congress delegates and so on.

Liturgies follow a fixed formula – there is a set script, proscribed actions and responses, a pre-determined culmination and fulfillment. We too know how the trial will end even before it begins. The proceedings will be swift, as the People’s righteous fury will not be denied. The court will indicate but not name the third Bo, now forever to be known as ‘So-and So’ 薄某某 or ‘a son named Bo’ as one Xinhua report put it so delicately. Meanwhile, BoGu Kailai awaits for what the court will deem a propitious occasion (ze ji 择吉) on which to announce its judgment: the accused will be found guilty, but all prognostications, and goat’s entrails predict a commuted death sentence.

The law and due process are not really the point. The moment people agreed to treat this process as a trial, a legal event, they shared unwittingly in the consensus view about Neil Heywood’s murder. The arguments will continue, but each and every one – including the view expressed in this essay – will unfold within the safe, predetermined boundaries of an official scripted liturgical ritual.

The trial of Madam BoGu Kailai has been a complete success.


Flora Sapio is a China law scholar whose main research interests are criminal justice and administrative detention. She is a research assistant professor in the Faculty of Law, Chinese University of Hong Kong and the author of Sovereign Power and the Law in China (Brill, 2010). She acknowledges the revisions and suggestions of the editors of The China Story site.



Editorial Note: The noted Beijing-based legal scholar He Weifang 贺卫方 has offered his own incisive comments on the trial.

[1] The famous Soviet defector in the 1960s who was subjected to five years of harsh treatment by the US authorities before being accepted as bona fide.

[2] On 18 January: British Foreign Office officials become aware of rumours within the British expat community that Heywood was murdered; 6 February: allegations about Heywood´s death are made by Wang Lijun; 15 February: deputy head of mission of the British Embassy in Beijing informs the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs of suspicions that Heywood had been murdered. See Foreign and Commonwealth Office, ‘Neil Heywood’,  17 April 2012, online at this website.

[3] This is why the rumors reported by the press (the mentally stable Gu bursting into a police meeting dressed up as a major-general proclaiming she wanted to protect Wang Lijun, not before having required each one of her business partners to divorce their wives and swear an oath of allegiance to her, etc) well before the trial are important. We will never know who leaked this information, however, after reading this Wall Street Journal article some of us may well have concluded that Gu Kailai was neurotic. Therefore, it will be easier to accept the fact that Gu will be given a relatively lenient sentence on the grounds of mental incompetence.