The Biggest Court Case In Recent Chinese History Might Just Be A Test Balloon

gu kailai, bo xilai

Photo: Alexander F. Yuan / Associated Press

Reuters has a telling quote in a story on the four police officers on trial for their alleged involvement in the Bo Xilai scandal surrounding the murder of British national Neil Heywood.The quote is about the recent and stunning 7-hour court case of Gu Kailai, Bo Xilai’s wife, who confessed to the murder of Heywood by poison. Foreign media were denied entry to the fast paced court proceedings, but an official briefed the media after the trial. Typically, news of closed court cases is delivered by Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese government mouthpiece.

From Reuters:

Chen Guangwu, a criminal defence attorney who has followed the Chongqing case closely, said he expected the verdicts against Gu and the four policemen to come in about two weeks.

“But they won’t delay for too long, because this case is being heard in order to pave the way for dealing with Bo Xilai himself,” said Chen, who is based in Shandong province.

“This case is in part about testing the waters for that. That is, they will sentence her and see what reaction there is in society and public opinion.

The key point, and this can have very real implications for any business that deals with China, is the effect the decision on Gu Kailai will have with public opinion. This will influence how the Chinese government is going to handle Bo, who does have a committed public following. Depending on the public response to the decision in Gu’s case they may pursue harsher or more lenient punishment with regard to Bo himself.

To put this in perspective, some of the crimes Bo is accused of may include spying on the highest levels of the Chinese leadership.

So, public opinion is extremely important in China. 

Ben Liebman, Director of the centre for Chinese Legal Studies at Columbia University, has written extensively on the complex interplay between the media, public opinion, the Party, and the courts. He has found that strong, united public opinion can have an incredibly strong impact on court cases and decisions.

This goes beyond the courtroom. The Internet there is active and people have strong opinions. If you are doing business in China then you need to be aware of how you are perceived by the Chinese public. It will effect how the government deals with you and how you might fare in a court case.

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