Bo wife murder charge vexes skeptical Chinese

By Ben Blanchard, Reuters

Posted at Jul 29 2012 07:06 PM | Updated as of Jul 30 2012 03:06 AM

BEIJING, China - China's ruling Communist Party might insist that the murder charge against Gu Kailai, the wife of ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai, is a simple case of all being equal before the law, but winning over the jury of public opinion is proving tough.

Since China's last big political scandal -- the purge of Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu in 2007 -- its citizens have flocked to sign up to the Twitter-like microblogging site Sina Weibo, ensuring this time there will be lively public debate about the case against Bo and Gu, despite tight censorship.

In its first official statement on Gu's case since April, state news agency Xinhua ran a brief report last week saying China will try Gu on charges of murdering a British businessman. The news spread rapidly on Weibo.

While state media generally stuck to reprinting that story, the influential tabloid the Global Times on Friday wrote an editorial warning nobody was above the law.

But that is a line the party is going to have a hard time convincing people is true, as suspicion swirls that populist politician Bo and his wife Gu are victims of a power struggle -- and no more corrupt than other Chinese leaders.

People already have little faith in government statements despite repeated pledges to be transparent, after the SARS cover-up in 2003, among others, and refusal to discuss events such as the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing.

"Who on earth could believe this?" wrote one microblogger, of the Global Times editorial. "Bo has just lost his personal battle; this case has never had anything to do with the rule of law."

Others thought Xinhua's wording that "the crimes are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial" ruled out any pretence at Gu getting a fair trial.

"It looks like the court is just going to be reading out the Xinhua piece ... What a shameless society without governance. I hope it collapses."

Bo, 62, was widely seen as pushing for a spot in China's new leadership until he was felled by the scandal brought to light by his former police chief, Wang Lijun.

Bo has not been named as a suspect in the murder case, but he has separately been accused of violating party discipline, sometimes code for corruption and abuses of power, and he could face trial at a later time.

Not a simple case

Gu has been in police custody for months on suspicion of involvement in Heywood's murder, though few details of the motive or the crime itself have been publicly released. State media said previously that he was killed after a financial dispute.

Xinhua said that the economic dispute between Gu and Heywood involved her son, Bo Guagua, who graduated from Harvard University this year and is still believed to be in the United States. It reported Gu believed Heywood was threatening her son.

Waiting for a meeting in a glass office tower in Shanghai's financial district, Lu Zida, a telecommunications specialist in his 30s, said that as a parent he could relate to Gu's maternal urge to protect her child.

He was, however, under no illusions that the case was as simple or straightforward as it appeared in state media reports.

"This is certainly not a simple criminal case. It's very complex -- money, power and politics," Lu said. "A mother must protect her children. If I was in her position I would do the same if someone was threatening my child. There's no reason not to."

In the steamy southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, once Bo and Gu's stomping ground, a group of five 20-something rural migrant workers said Bo was well-liked for improving the city and cracking down on organised crime.

"He was a political star," said one of the young men, who said he and his friends came from Fengdu, a rural part of Chongqing.

"He's done for now, but the ordinary people still have fond memories of him," said the young man, who declined to give his name. "His wife was the one who caused him this trouble."

Yu Kun, a Chongqing billboard advertising salesman, said he felt for Bo.

"We all love Bo Xilai. We feel that it's about a political struggle," Yu said. He pointed to the unfinished, ultra-modern opera house and science museum jutting out on the other side of the river as evidence of Bo's ability and large ambition.

"Of course, there's corruption," Yu said, when pressed over the allegations against Gu. "In China, everything, everyone has to be corrupt. It's all about the hidden rules. They were no different, but they didn't stand out from the rest either."