The trial, conviction and suspended death sentence of Gu Kailai, the wife of purged Chinese leader Bo Xilai, has called into question not only China’s legal system but also the very unity of the Communist Party leadership.

Let us begin with the many questions raised at the trial. For starters, Gu claimed that she killed the British businessman Neil Heywood only to protect her son. But given Gu’s power as Bo’s wife, she could have had someone like Heywood jailed or expelled from China at the snap of her fingers. No need for cyanide.

Still, she not only admitted her guilt, but seemed to embrace it as a sort of historical necessity. “In order to uphold the sanctity of the law,” she told the court, “I am willing to accept and calmly face whatever judgment I am given, and I also expect a fair and just judgment.”

Not since Josef Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s has a defendant so effusively praised a judge who seemed bound to condemn her at a trial where no witness or evidence against her was presented.

The bitter irony of Gu’s high-speed trial is that she was a true believer in China’s legal system. Indeed, following a victory in an American court, Gu, a lawyer, wrote a book in which she claimed that China provides “the fairest method of trial.”

“Chinese lawyers would not quibble over the meaning of each little word,” she added. “Once they are sure that you murdered someone, you will be arrested, judged and executed by firing squad.”

Indeed, Gu was an avatar of the Maoist form of legality that China has maintained long after Mao’s death. Having failed the entrance examination to Peking University, Gu was nonetheless granted an exception and admitted to read law soon after the Communist Party restored the law departments. Prior to that, she sold pork in a Beijing market, where she earned the nicknamed, “Yi dao zhun,” meaning that she could hack off a desired slice of meat with one blow.

Gu was one of the first lawyers to receive her license. But after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, the authorities clamped down on the profession’s autonomy. The Party reasserted control over every aspect of justice through the Communist Party Central Committee’s Political and Legal Affairs Committee (PLAC).

This totalitarian organ has no known address, yet it manages China’s police, prosecutors, courts and justice ministry, and appoints their leadership. All lawyers fall under its remit.

Most important, all local PLAC secretaries simultaneously lead the local public security bureau.

Small wonder, then, that the artist Ai Weiwei could be detained in secret, Liu Xiaobo could be sentenced to 11 years in prison for starting a petition, and Li Wangya could “commit suicide” while in custody.

But even this monolithic system of control is porous. If Wang Lijun, the former Chongqing police commissioner and close ally of Bo Xilai, had not feared for his life and fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, Gu would still be helping Bo to rule the city.

Wang is no saint. Before he became Bo’s police commissioner, he was the director of the Field Psychology Research Center, where the condemned were executed and their live organs removed.

Wang’s paper, “A Study of Organ and Receptor Transplantation after Execution by Injection,” earned him the Guanghua Innovation Contribution Award. In the paper, he credits “our achievements” to “thousands of transplantations.”

Given his familiarity with the brutality of the Chinese system, Wang no doubt understood that, after falling out with Gu and Bo, the U.S. consulate might be the only place he could find safety.

After all, when it came to the public security organs, the courts and the prison system, Gu always had the final say. She acted as her husband’s adviser for cracking down on crime and corruption, and was responsible for sending two people — including the PLAC secretary in Wushan County — to prison.

A few days after killing Heywood, Gu donned a major general’s uniform (which could have belonged to her father, Gen. Gu Jingsheng), convened police officers in Chongqing and falsely claimed that she had received a secret order from the Ministry of Public Security to protect Wang’s personal safety. The uniform, perhaps, was intended to intimidate the Chongqing police.

In a strange and unexplained twist, Wang was whisked from the U.S. consulate to Beijing, where he presented the Party leadership with the evidence that brought about Bo’s downfall and Gu’s arrest. But revealing the skeletons in Bo’s closet also meant revealing the secret world of the “red aristocracy.” So, Wang can expect no leniency at his trial, which will most likely end with a commuted death sentence and forced labor.

To protect the red aristocracy, PLAC made no mention during Gu’s trial of her myriad economic crimes. So, in PLAC’s rewrite of history, Heywood was murdered so that Gu could protect her son, Bo Guagua. And Wang did not defend China’s honor by revealing Bo’s and Gu’s criminality, but aired his stories to hostile foreign forces. Only through his punishment can popular indignation be contained.

The Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai affair may only be a prologue, because the only clear truth to emerge from it is that the Party leadership is fractured. The wolves are now turning on each other.

Ma Jian’s most recent novel is “Beijing Coma.” © 2012 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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