Gu Kailai was a successful and glamorous lawyer married to one of the rising stars of China’s Communist party. So when she began using the English name of “Horus”, after the Egyptian god of war, on her business cards, it seemed a strange decision. Now, however, the name appears slightly more fitting: this year Gu played the leading role in a drama that led to Beijing’s biggest political crisis in decades.
The story of Gu, now in jail after being convicted of the murder of a British businessman, is very different from the others in this issue. Nevertheless, her impact in shaping China’s political future makes her one of the most influential women of 2012.
Born to a revolutionary family in 1958, Gu grew up during the Cultural Revolution. At one point she was sent to the country and worked as a bricklayer, and then as a butcher’s assistant, where she earned the nickname “One Slice” for her accuracy in cutting meat. She took up the pipa, a four-stringed lute, as a way to get out of the countryside, and won a spot in the Beijing Film Orchestra.
After high school she studied at Peking University, where she met her future husband, Bo Xilai, who was married at the time. Like her, he was the scion of a powerful political family, and acquaintances describe both of them as “ruthless” in their pursuit of power. They were married in the mid-1980s and their son, Guagua, was born in 1987.
In 1995 Gu set up her own law firm, Beijing Kailai – the first in China to be named after a woman. Her law career thrived during the 1990s, and she starred in a TV soap opera that dramatised a US court case she helped to win for a Chinese client (though she did not play herself in the series). Pictures at the time show a sleek, fit woman with high cheekbones and a winning smile. Marion Wynne, a US lawyer who worked with her on the case, remembers her as “very personable and fun to be with”.
Gu even wrote a book called Uphold Justice in America, parts of which now seem very prescient. In one section she reflects on China’s values, turning an old adage on its head: “Even a people that claim to pay attention to values still believe in this philosophy: that it doesn’t matter whether you are a black rat or a white rat. As long as the cat doesn’t catch you, you are a good rat … That only if you win can you avoid blame.”
When she penned those words, it was probably difficult for her to imagine that she would ever be on the losing side, as the power couple was on a meteoric trajectory. Bo was halfway through his tenure as mayor of Dalian – a large city and seaport in northeast China – and widely hailed as a success. Soon he would be appointed head of Liaoning province, and then minister of commerce in 2004.
But it was also in Dalian where Gu and Bo became acquainted with Neil Heywood, a British businessman who grew to be a family confidante. He lent a hand when Gu and her son moved to the UK so that Guagua could study English, and looked after him when he was at Harrow and Oxford.
In 2008, Heywood helped Gu liaise with the British Museum about the possibility of her becoming its patron in China. A person who met her at that time described her as an “expensively dressed diva” whose personality was “very contained, the consummate madame”.
Back home, Bo was appointed in 2007 as party head of Chongqing in southern China. As he mounted a campaign to revive Maoist slogans and songs – and launched an anti-corruption push that appeared to target political enemies – he ruffled feathers back in Beijing.
Soon, an internal corruption probe was launched against Gu, probably instigated by her husband’s political opponents. It was the beginning of the end. The probe disturbed her deeply: she became depressed and paranoid, requiring treatment for “chronic insomnia, anxiety, depression, and paranoia”, according to an official summary of her eventual trial.
Why exactly she fixated on Heywood as a threat is not clear. According to the account published by the Chinese state-run press, she and Heywood had “conflicts over economic interests” and she believed he had threatened Guagua. After summoning Heywood to visit her in Chongqing, she wined and dined him, and spent an hour or two in his hotel room plying him with alcohol. When he vomited and asked for water, she poured cyanide into his mouth.
In a move befitting the John Grisham novels that Gu likes to read, she and her assistant tried to cover up the crime by sprinkling narcotics around the room. Police helped to hide the murder by having the body cremated without an autopsy and telling the British consulate that he died of excessive alcohol consumption.
At least, that is the official version of events – and Gu has not been allowed to tell her own side of it since she was arrested last March. When she was convicted in August, the state-run media said that she told the court: “The case has produced great losses to the party and the country, for which I ought to shoulder the responsibility, and I will never feel at ease.” Despite her contrition she was given a suspended death sentence, which typically means life in jail. She could not be interviewed for this piece, and her son did not respond to two requests.
But even behind bars, Gu Kailai’s story continues. Bo, who was also taken into custody, is awaiting trial on corruption charges. He has been stripped of his Communist party membership and lost any chance of ever being anointed to the standing committee of the politburo, where he was previously expected to win a place this autumn.
The scandal laid bare the excesses and abuses of power that are possible within the party system. It also tipped the balance during the leadership transition toward incoming leader Xi Jinping, who has started off his term with an unusually strong political hand.
Despite Bo’s abuses of power in office, his downfall has been attributed mainly to the Heywood murder – a convenient narrative for Chinese leaders who do not want to explain how someone like him could flourish in their midst. Many in China say Gu’s fate epitomises a tradition of blaming women for their husband’s mistakes. “In this country, when a man does something bad, it’s the woman’s fault,” wrote Hung Huang, the publisher and media commentator.
Examples abound. The Tang dynasty was felled by the beautiful Yang Guifei, who distracted the emperor, causing an uprising that ended with a new government and her body in a ditch. The Xia dynasty met a similar fate: its last emperor doted on his concubine Jie, who used to throw parties with pools of wine so big that guests could row across them. He neglected his duties and the dynasty fell.
Such stories have given rise to the saying hong yan huo shui – “a beautiful woman is the root of trouble”. Academics say it sums up a tendency to vilify powerful or attractive females. The ramifications of the Heywood murder continue to reverberate in the corridors of power in Beijing. And the ranks of China’s legendary hong yan huo shui have gained an unlikely new member.
Leslie Hook is an FT Beijing correspondent
Women of 2012