Q&A: Why the Gu Kailai trial is important

Examining China's legal system

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Story highlights

  • Murder trial of Gu Kailai has ramifications far beyond case's verdict
  • Trial comes ahead of party congress that will set China's future leadership
  • Analyst: No one expects outcome "to be judged just on the merits of the case"
  • Ruling class worried case could prompt other corruption investigations

The trial of Gu Kailai, a high-profile Chinese politician's wife who is accused of murdering a UK businessman, would be a sensational case in any season.

But coming months ahead of a party congress that will chart China's future leadership, the ramifications could echo far beyond the trial verdict.

Timeline: Bo Xilai scandal

"This is definitely more than a criminal trial," says Wenran Jiang, who went to Peking University with Gu's husband, Bo Xilai -- the one-time Communist Party chief of Chongqing and member of the policy-making party politburo which he was dismissed from in April 2012 following allegations Gu was behind the murder of British businessman, Neil Heywood.

Who is Gu Kailai?

At the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party expected later this year, current President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will begin handing over the reins of power to the next generation of leaders. The criminal trial of Bo's wife "is probably going to be watched not for the case itself but the fate of Bo Xilai. Everybody is watching whether Bo Xilai's political life will end," says Jiang, now a professor of political science at the University of Alberta.

Politician's wife charged with murder

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CNN's Beijing Bureau Chief, Jaime FlorCruz -- who also attended Peking University with Bo -- spoke to Jiang about the case and its wider implications. Responses are edited for length and clarity.

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CNN: You knew Bo Xilai in university. How do you remember him?

Who is Gu Kailai?

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He's smart, he's articulate and he is ambitious. He showed all those traits back then. He doesn't really think or care about the smaller issues. He wants to do his own thing. He doesn't really care who says what to him, he just pushes forward.

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Did you know his wife when you were there?

I only met her very briefly and am not quite familiar with her. She was smart, articulate, also a graduate from Peking University. Peking University graduates tend to pride themselves on being social and political elites. Therefore, I'm not surprised at his wife being more than a housewife. She wanted to do something, she had her own law practice and she had all these relationships. She could be a very protective, aggressive and assertive mother who wanted a bright future for her son.

Do you think the family is getting a fair trial?

It is difficult to say. In the Chinese legal system, despite its tremendous progress over the past decades, we know it is still subject to party approval and management. In this trial, frankly speaking, nobody believes that it's a totally independent judiciary and it will be judged just on the merits of the case. It has been managed by the most senior level of leadership at every step.

While they accuse Gu Kailai of murder, prosecutors have apparently dropped the allegation of corruption. If so, what does that mean?

Number one, it may show that they have a very strong case on the murder and criminal side, but the case for corruption might be more difficult to prove. Number two, when you move into the murky territory of corruption, then it relates not just to Gu Kailai herself, or her husband, but it might be involving the network of the family. And the family network is probably very strong and related to all the other powerful elite families. Therefore it becomes a very difficult situation to manage.

Once you open the floodgate of investigating one senior official's wife's potential corruption case, people would probably like to know what the corruption situation looks like with other high-ranking politburo officials and their families. So I think that might be a path that they may not want to travel.

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Why is the trial in the eastern city of Hefei, far away from Chongqing where the crime was allegedly committed?

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There's different speculation. One is to remove the case from the location, Chongqing, where there might have some partiality...that's not uncommon, even in other countries. Another explanation is maybe the local legal structure is better controlled by the central party apparatus. Therefore, to isolate the case in Hefei, that may actually get the expected result.

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If Gu Kailai were found guilty, what will that mean?

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Death penalty or not, it will be the end of her story. Number two, most importantly is about her husband. Her husband's case would be followed after the conviction. Currently it is not a criminal case for Bo Xilai, so then he might be disciplined based on his failure to not be able to stop or manage his wife. Or in some ways implicate him in the case, even if he himself is not involved in the murder. There could be many, many other factors that could cause him to be disciplined. One way or the other, the conviction of Gu Kailai would mean the end of Bo Xilai's political life.

Is Chinese history repeating itself -- a wife taking the fall for a powerful husband?

That goes back to (imperial) court struggles over thousands of years of Chinese history. (In recent history) we can go back to Madame Mao, Jiang Qing, of the "The Gang of Four" (who ruled China during the Cultural Revolution and imprisoned after a 1981 trial). And people say in the current non-transparent system of China, a powerful wife may take the fall for her husband.

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