A British businessman poisoned in a Chinese city. The alleged killer: the wife of a man who was eyeing one of the nine seats at the highest level of political power, the Communist Party politburo. Was this killing connected in any way to political events, and could it, indeed, impact the election of a new generation of Chinese leaders?
The murder charge against the wife of senior Communist Party leader Bo Xilai has shaken China's political establishment as it prepares to elect a new governing politburo.
"It's not really about Gu Kailai. It is really about Bo Xilai .... Bo Xilai is a very able, charismatic, maverick type of figure in the Chinese top leadership, which is very unusual. And he's not just seeking promotion, he is pushing himself forward for promotion ... and clearly his ambition is not just being a member of the standing committee of the politburo. He is ambitious enough to want to be number one. And the heir apparent does not want him to be number one for obvious reasons .... When an opportunity finally came up they used it to oust him."
- Steve Tsang, the director of the China Policy Institute
The story goes back to November 2011, when the dead body of British businessman Neil Heywood was found in a hotel in Chongqing. The initial cause of death was said to be self-inflicted alcohol poisoning. But there were soon rumours about the possible involvement of his former business partner, Gu Kailai, the wife of Bo Xilai, who was the region's governor at the time.
In February 2012, Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun sought refuge at the US embassy following what appeared to be a fallout with the governor. And, a month later, Bo Xilai was removed from his position as governor.
At the same time, the UK asked China to open a new inquiry into Heywood's death. His former close relationship with both Gu Kailai and her husband was now publicly acknowledged.
On April 10, Bo Xilai's hope of rising to the politburo was finally dashed when his Communist Party leadership was suspended and it was announced that his wife was being investigated in relation to Heywood's death.
Finally, on July 26, Gu Kailai and a family employee were charged with killing Heywood and sent to trial.
Now, the latest targets in the widening scandal are four senior police officers who investigated the death of Heywood and then apparently covered-up his murder. According to prosecutors, they made their decision upon learning that the most likely culprit was Gu Kailai.
They are accused of forging witness statements, hiding evidence and fabricating the story that Heywood died as a result of heavy drinking.
As more people find themselves in court, the Chinese authorities find themselves facing an increasingly difficult balancing act as they attempt to clean up the scandal surrounding Bo Xilai without further damaging the reputation of the Communist Party in which he wielded power.
So far, according to analysts, they are just about maintaining that balance.
So, is this case part of a wider political conspiracy?
Inside Story, with presenter Mike Hanna, discusses with guests: Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong; Steve Tsang, the director of the China Policy Institute in the UK and a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham; and Gordon Chang, a former lawyer and the author of The Coming Collapse of China.
ABOUT BO XILAI:
- He is son of a famous Communist Party leader
- He was the governor and Communist Party chief in Chongqing, one of the largest cities in the world with a population of almost 33 million
- There he led a high-profile campaign against organised crime and was a strong advocate of Maoist political ideas
- He was, until recently, one of the most powerful figures in the Communist Party and many had predicted that he would rise to the highest office in government
- But he was also described as ruthless and arrogant, mostly by his political opponents
- He has not been seen in public since the investigation into him and his wife was announced