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by Paul Levine

When I taught modern culture in China I asked my students to read Franz Kafka’s The Trial. In a nation with an authoritarian government which operates beyond the rule of law this seemed like an obvious choice. In the past few years, China’s opaque system of justice has become transparent in its persecution of dissidents: Liu Xiaobo, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was jailed for subversion; Ai Wei Wei, the dissident artist recently, was convicted of tax evasion; Chen Guangcheng, the blind country lawyer who attacked illegal abortion procedures, was imprisoned for “disturbing traffic” and “destroying property.” With each trial we entered the world of Kafka.In The Trial, Josef K., an ordinary bank clerk, is mysteriously accused of an unnamed crime of which he is presumed guilty. All his efforts to discover the nature of his crime and prove his innocence go unrewarded. But as he tries to penetrate the mystifying system of justice and its opaque legal bureaucracy, he begins to doubt his own innocence and becomes complicit in his own destruction. Thus reading Kafka in China seemed logical: as in Kafka, so in China the accused is presumed guilty until he proves his innocence, which rarely happens. I told my students that if they understood Kafka they would learn something important about how to live in China.

That was in 2010. Little did I imagine that we were prescient in our reading. In 2012 nature began to imitate art when the wife of a powerful Chinese political leader was convicted of murdering an English businessman in a dispute over money. Gu Kailai, the wife of Bo Xilai and a celebrated lawyer, was given a suspended death sentence for her crime, meaning that with good behavior her sentence would be reduced to life in prison. The trial of Gu Kailai is the most sensational trial in China since Mao Zedung’s wife, Jiang Qing, was given a suspended death sentence in 1981 for her leading role in Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution. What does it reveal about the current state of Chinese society at a time when the Party selected its new leadership for the next decade?

The recent Kafkaesque trial involved neither an ordinary bank clerk nor a brave dissident. Instead the subjecs are from the nation’s elite, family members of the Party’s Inner Circle. Here are the details.

On November 14, 2011, Neil Heywood was found dead in his hotel room in Chongqing, a vast megalopolis of 30 million people. Officials attributed the cause of death to a heart attack brought on by alcohol poisoning. This was strange because Heywood was only 41 years-old and known as a teetotaler. No autopsy was performed and the body was speedily cremated.

Heywood was no ordinary foreign businessman. He was closely connected with Bo Xilai, the charismatic Party leader and power broker in Chongqing, and his family. Indeed, Heywood had business dealings with Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, and he had been instrumental in getting Bo’s son, Guagua, admitted to Harrow, one of England’s most prestigious and expensive public schools. If the Bos had been a Mafia family like the fabled Corleones, Heywood might have been likened to a consigliere, or family advisor.

Heywood’s sudden death soon disappeared from public view. Then on February 6, 2012. Wang Lijun, Chief of Police in Chongqing, made a dramatic appearance at the US Consulate in Chengdu and asked for protection. Wang was known as Bo Xilai’s right-hand man. They had teamed up years earlier when Bo was governor of Liaoning Province and Wang was the director of public security in the city of Tieling. Wang had advanced in the system through his connection to Bo; publicity about his harsh crackdown on criminal elements in Chongqing had made him a celebrity. Now he claimed that his boss was out to demote, defame or murder him because he had evidence that Heywood had been murdered by Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai.

The Americans were placed in a dilemma. After hearing Wang’s detailed report on Heywood’s murder and other sordid activities, they were faced with the problem of what to do with him. The Americans never claimed that Wang asked for asylum but they were keen to avoid a major diplomatic row over the defection of a high-ranking Chinese official. Instead they arranged for Wang to be picked up by state security agents and taken to Beijing. There Wang was protected from Bo’s wrath and could be used as an informer by Bo’s enemies. He would later be sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

When Wang’s attempted defection and sensational revelations came to light in March, the Party apparatus went into action. Wang was relieved of his duties and Gu became the subject of an intensive criminal investigation. In April she was detained for questioning and on July 26 she was formally charged with murder. Her one-day trial took place on August 9 when she made a full confession, admitting that she had administered the fatal poison. Gu claimed that she had suffered a “mental breakdown” because of Heywood’s threats against her son. On August 20 she received a suspended death sentence. She accepted her verdict without complaint and praised the court for its fairness.

In the official press, the conviction was proof of the efficiency and impartiality of the Chinese legal system. Xinhua declared that the authorities had collected evidence from 394 interrogations which filled sixteen volumes of documents. They “handled the case strictly in accordance with the law in the process of the investigation, approval of the arrest, prosecution and the court hearing.” When confronted with the overwhelming evidence, the humbled Gu could only confess. She said: “I feel the verdict is fair and just. It reflects comprehensively the special respect of our court to the law, reality and especially to life.”

But China’s unofficial press was less impressed. The Chinese internet is closely censored but it is avidly read by millions of ordinary citizens. Many noted the contradictions in the trial. He Weifang, a lawyer, wrote: “Contrary to what the law would seem to require, Gu did not get a public trial. Attendance was restricted to a government-selected audience.” Another blogger, Ho Pin, noted, “Contrary to law, she did not get a chance to choose her own lawyer. A local court-appointed lawyer with ties to the government represented her.” Gu’s defense was that she was reacting to Heywood’s threats against her playboy son, Bo Guagua. But, according to a family intimate, “In the testimony, Bo Guagua asserted he didn’t meet Heywood and did not engage in anything with Heywood in recent years.” Finally, Wang Xuemei, a prominent Chinese government forensic scientist, even cast doubt on the official version of death by poisoning, by pointing out there were no signs of body discoloration which cyanide inevitably causes.

What was presented at court was a Kabuki play. (Kabuki drama, Wikipedia explains, “refers to an event that is designed to create the appearance of conflict or of an uncertain outcome, when in fact the actors have worked together to determine the outcome beforehand.”) No wonder Ho Pin concluded, “Unfortunately, the trial was conducted hastily and shabbily, exposing the ugliness of the Chinese legal system. One can only imagine the fate of the thousands of faceless or nameless Chinese who are being judged by the legal system without any media attention.” Another blogger concurred. “A suspended death sentence isn’t surprising at all,” he wrote in a post that was quickly deleted by the censors. “From Jiang Qing to today, what government official’s family member has been given an actual death sentence for committing a serious crime? It’s an unspoken rule!”

If skeptical Chinese are correct that the trial was a fabrication, what was it intended to hide? What could be worse than the accusation that a member of China’s elite deliberately murdered a foreign national? In a dictatorship where all news is censored by the Party, rumors are elevated to the currency of fact. One rumor was that Heywood and Gu were lovers. This unlikely event suggests that we should read James M. Cain’s lurid fiction along with Franz Kafka. A more tantalizing rumor appeared after the trial: it was reported that Heywood was under surveillance by Chinese security as a suspected British agent. Was placid Neil Heywood another James Bond? Should we add Ian Fleming or John LeCarré to our reading of Cain and Kafka?

Others suggest there are two different versions of the conflict that led to the murder. In the official version, Heywood threatened Gu’s son in a dispute over a failed business venture. In the unofficial version, Heywood threatened to expose the Bo family dealings when they argued over his payment for helping Gu move a large sum of money abroad. According to the New York Times, the Bo extended family has amassed a fortune of $160 million, much of it outside the mainland. Thus a focus on this issue could “also cast a sharper spotlight on the hidden wealth and power accumulated by the Communist Party’s revolutionary families, and by the sons, daughters, wives and close relatives of the nation’s high-ranking leaders.”

So why did Gu Kailai meekly confess to the murder? After all, she was a celebrated lawyer who had written a book disparaging the American legal system and especially its presumption of innocence. She wrote: “In America, there are these endless stays of execution. We don’t dither for long in China. We execute them.” An ambitious power player, Gu was closer to Lady Macbeth than to Mary Poppins. Ho Pin explains: “Ms. Gu and her family may have intentionally refrained from mounting a vigorous defense against the murder charges and decided to strike a deal with the government because she understood that the trial’s real target was her husband—whom senior party leaders in Beijing are hoping to render guilty by association and destroy for good.”

But Gu Kailai’s confession did not prevent the Party leadership from attacking her husband. Soon Bo Xilai was expelled from the Party and charged with corruption, sexual promiscuity and abusing his power. But this attack was not without its hazards. “This could really open a can of worms,” says Bo Zhiyue, a Senior Fellow at Singapore’s National University,. “The relatives of other party leaders are also doing lots of business deals, and people will begin to ask: What about them? Was the Bo family the only one doing this kind of thing?”

Since Deng Xiaoping declared “It’s glorious to be rich,” the socialist ethic in China has been turned on its head. In the 1990s, Jiang Zemin redefined the composition of the Chinese Communist Party to include private entrepreneurs. This year, the rubber-stamp Party Congress that endorsed the new Party leadership included seventy billionaires. Last year, the People’s Bank of China estimated that since 1990 about 18,000 corrupt officials had fled China with $120 billion in stolen funds. No wonder there is a popular saying in China: ”If we don’t root out corruption, the country will perish; if we do root out corruption, the Party will perish.”

Here we approach the heart of the matter. The elephant in the room during the trial of Gu Kailai was her husband, the controversial populist Party leader who was vying for a top spot in the new government. Bo Xilai had friends in the conservative wing of the Party who opposed China’s headlong dash towards capitalism. But he had made many enemies as well by his flamboyant behavior which was distrusted by a collective leadership that rules by consensus. Instead they turned to a compromise candidate, Vice President Xi Jinping.

In fact, there are eerie parallels in the lives of the two rivals. Both are “princelings”: the privileged children of the first generation of revolutionary heroes who fought alongside Mao Zedong. But both fathers ran afoul of Party intrigues and were imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, only to be rehabilitated a decade later. The sons were humiliated as well but they chose to swallow their pride, enlist in the Party and work their way up the hierarchy. (As the Spanish say, Living well is the best revenge!) Der Spiegel writes:

“Theirs were storybook careers, as uncannily similar as their life stories. Both men were so-called princelings, whose fathers had already held top spots in the Communist Party hierarchy. Each man had been divorced and then married a second wife who was known throughout the country. Both men sent their children to Harvard. And both are from families that have amassed astonishingly large fortunes worth hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Despite his family’s enormous wealth, no one has accused Xi Jinping of corruption. He is generally viewed as honest, dedicated and cautious. “Xi has managed to rise to where he is by not offending important people and by avoiding standing out,” John Garnaut wrote recently in Foreign Policy Magazine. “His crowning political achievement is to have risen with barely a trace.” An influential Chinese economist who wishes to remain anonymous, agrees. “He’s spent his whole career pretending he could not threaten anybody,” he says. “We cannot, therefore, rule out the possibility that he is very smart.” Thus Xi remains a cipher; current speculations about future reforms are pure fantasy.

But China experts in the west are not optimistic about the possibility of reform. “Will the new group at the top of the Communist Party be able to engineer the reforms needed to tackle the plethora of challenges afflicting virtually every realm of policy and governance—domestic and international—in China?” asks David Shambaugh, Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University. “The answer, unfortunately, is no.” Shambaugh says, “China is in dire need of visionary and strong leadership — the complex challenges facing the nation have grown more acute during Hu Jintao’s presidency—but don’t expect it from the new team in Beijing.” Instead of reform under Xi Jinping, “expect more of the same: authoritarian stagnation and gridlock at home, with increased abrasiveness abroad.”

The last act of this Kafkaesque drama is still to be performed: the trial of Bo Jilai on charges of corruption, promiscuity and abuse of power. Bo is depicted as Lucifer, the fallen angel from the heavenly firmament represented by the Party. But is it possible to isolate Bo from the pervasive corruption of the entire Party system? “It’s a virtually insoluble dilemma–how do you cure corruption that’s so widespread, that’s from top to bottom?” asks Roderick MacFarquhar of Harvard University. “They are frightened that if they start something, this might be the taking away of the stone that leads to an avalanche.”

Recent events confirm MacFarquhar’s doubts. For instance, consider the eye-opening fortune of $160 million attributed to Bo Xilai and his family. Wen Xiabao, the grandfatherly prime minister, led the attack on corruption after the Bo scandal broke. But then the New York Times published a sensational series of articles demonstrating how Wen’s extended family had amassed a whopping fortune of $2.7 billion during Wen’s tenure in office. Or review the charge of promiscuity against Bo. In late November, Xi Jinping, the new Party General Secretary, was faced with a new crisis in Chongqing. A 54 year-old local party official was caught on video having sex with his 18 year-old mistress. The video was posted on line and the party official was dismissed. But the Washington Post reported that the citizen journalist who posted the video said “he had more juicy tapes exposing the high jinks of other Chongqing cadres cavorting with their mistresses.” Since Bo Xilai still has his supporters in the Party elite it is doubtful that he will go gently into the night. Thus the last act of the Bo family drama may transcend Kafka and approach Jacobean revenge tragedy.

If I were teaching in China today, we would read Kafka’s other great novel The Castle. Here Kafka depicts a mysterious universe close to the real world of the Communist Party. In The Castle, the land surveyor K spends his life in a fruitless attempt to reach the inscrutable government officials who have hired him. The Castle is like the insular complex called Zhongnanhai where Party officials, like Kafka’s bureaucrats, live and work in a part of Beijing’s ancient Forbidden City where emperors once ruled. “If China has a heart, this is where it beats,” writes Der Spiegel. “But if there is one thing at work in Zhongnanhai, it’s the country’s brain. And while the traffic rages outside . . . insiders report that a ghostly quiet prevails inside the mysterious complex, almost like the silence in the eye of a typhoon—and just as dangerous, as is now becoming evident in the dramatic struggle for power in this enormous country of 1.35 billion people.” Even here we cannot forget the lessons of The Trial. No wonder a Chinese psychiatrist explained to a friend of mine, “Every Chinese has fear in his heart.”End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy


Paul Levine is Emeritus Professor of American Literature at Copenhagen University. He was born in Brooklyn, attended Wesleyan and Princeton and received a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard. Levine taught at Wesleyan, Rochester and York (Toronto) Universities before becoming the first Professor of American Literature in Copenhagen (1975-2006). He also held the Salgo Chair in American Studies at Eötvös Lorand University in Budapest (1986-9) and directed the annual Athens American Studies Seminar for fifteen years (1994-2009). He publishes widely on literature, art, film and culture. He collaborated with E. L. Doctorow on a volume of the novelist’s Screenplays (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) and a new edition of America Since 1945: The American Moment, (with Harry Papasotiriou) was published by Palgrave in 2010. He has twice received royal honors in Denmark and holds the title of Ridder af Dannebrogorden, 1st Kl. (2000).Levine first went to China in 2001 at the invitation of the State Department to help create a graduate program in American Studies at ECNU (East China Normal University, Shanghai). In 2004 he was awarded a Fulbright Professorship at ECNU for three semesters. After retiring from Copenhagen in 2006, he served as director of regional studies and the new Center for International Studies (2007-11) at Shantou University in Guangdong Province. He and his wife, Lily Varidaki-Levine, now live in Copenhagen and Athens.


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