Some perspective on Bo Xilai and the murder mystery

On Thursday, April 26, 2012, in China, Recent, US Government, by Todd Stein

The Bo Xilai affair is a development of seismic proportions in domestic Chinese politics. It is also one that should be put in proper perspective.

To recap, Bo Xilai, who until recently was the party boss of Chongqing and presumed to be ascendant to the highest rung of leadership in Beijing, was purged from the party and power.  The downfall began when his deputy, Wang Lijun, went to the U.S. Consulate in Chengu with, reportedly, incriminating information about Bo. The intrigue deepened when the information included an accusation that Bo and/or his wife, Gu Kailai, were involved in the November 2011 death of Neil Heywood, a British businessman living in China.

Initially, the official Chinese media said that Heywood has died of alcohol poisoning, a charge that, along with his body’s cremation without autopsy, raised eyebrows. They changed their story by April 10, when Xinhua reported that Gu Kailai and an aide were “highly suspected” of “intentional homicide” of Heywood.

Many China watchers are keeping a keen eye on the Bo Xilai downfall for clues to the factional battles in the upcoming once-a-decade leadership transition in Beijing, and analyzing what it means for the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power.

But the turn from a case of palace intrigue into a murder mystery has heightened interest. Here’s where a little perspective is in order.

Xinhua’s April 10 report said, “according to senior officials…China is a socialist country ruled by law, and the sanctity and authority of law shall not be tramped. Whoever has broken the law will be handled in accordance with law and will not be tolerated, no matter who is involved.” An April 18 Xinhua editorial promised a thorough investigation into the death, which it claimed showed the Communist Party’s adherence to the rule of law.

Were that it were so.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of “intentional homicides” are committed by the Chinese state every year. (The count is much higher if you count “unintentional” homicides, such as death as a result of torture wounds). In China and Tibet, impunity is a way of life for Chinese authorities.

We see little evidence that cases of killings by Chinese authorities are thoroughly investigated with the aim of bringing the perpetrators to justice. The U.S. State Department has reported that, on occasion, the Chinese press does report on prisoners who die of “unnatural deaths,” although there is no mention of anyone arrested or convicted in response. Official explanations can be outlandish, such as a depiction of a stab wound to the heart as a pimple scar (see below). As stated in the Tibet section of the Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2010:

There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings; however, it was not possible to verify independently these reports. There were no reports that officials investigated or punished those responsible for the killings.

Official claims that the Gu Kailai case demonstrates the integrity of the Chinese criminal justice system must be challenged by foreign reporters writing about it (given the quality of the foreign press corps in Beijing, I am confident that they will). Moreover, they should put this case in perspective and use this opportunity highlight the pervasiveness of state-sponsored homicides committed with impunity in China and Tibet.

This is not to say that the Bo-Gu-Heywood affair shouldn’t be treated as a spectacle, because it is an extraordinary development. But it is important to remember that if justice is claimed to have been done in this case, it does not mean that there is justice in the People’s Republic of China.

Excerpts from the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2010 (most recent edition) for China (with Tibet section):

CHINA

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

During the year security forces reportedly committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. No official statistics on deaths in custody were available. In April 2009 the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) disclosed that at least 15 prisoners died “unnatural deaths” under unusual circumstances as of the 2009 disclosure. According to a Chinese press report, seven of the prisoners died of beatings, three were classified as suicides, two were described as accidents, and three remained under investigation.

On March 8, Zhou Lingguang, a Huazhou, Guangdong Province native died while in detention in Guangzhou. Zhou had been remanded to one year of reeducation through labor (RTL) in 2009 for gambling, but due to space limitations had been transferred to a Juvenile Detention Center. According to prison officials, Zhou’s heart “abruptly stopped beating.” Family members questioned the official explanation, and demanded an independent autopsy. When the family viewed Zhou’s body, they reported his corpse was covered except for the head and that he was enclosed in a glass case. They were not permitted to take photographs. Prison officials refused the family’s request to release surveillance footage.

On March 31, Yang Xiuan, an inmate serving a mandatory drug rehabilitation sentence died in a treatment center in Ziyang, Sichuan Province. A center official said he had died of natural causes, but his family doubted the official cause of death claiming that when they saw Yang’s body his face was badly bruised.

On May 3, authorities notified Fu Changping’s family that he died in an RTL facility in Jixi, Heilongjiang Province. Although facility officials claimed he died “normally,” Fu’s family said his body was covered in cuts and bruises. Medical records from when Fu entered the camp weeks earlier noted Fu was in good health. Authorities threatened to withhold compensation for Fu’s death if the family continued to suggest Fu was murdered.

On August 8, detainee Ren Aiguo was discovered dead in a detention center located in HeshunCounty, Jinzhong, Shanxi Province. An inspection team organized by local officials ruled the death a suicide. Ren’s family challenged the ruling, claiming inspectors failed to properly investigate the death and ignored critical questions. The family questioned the lack of surveillance footage, although the room in the detention center where Ren was found was equipped with a video camera. The inspection team claimed the monitoring equipment in the facility had been out of service.

There were no known developments in the 2009 deaths in custody of Lin Guojiang, Li Qiaoming, Li Wenyan, all of whom died under suspicious or unexplained circumstances, or regarding the allegation that Tibetan monk, Phuntsok Rabten, was beaten to death by police.

In June Guangxi Litang Prison authorities reported the April 2009 death of He Zhi, a Falun Gong practitioner who was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment in 2005. Authorities at Guangxi Litang Prison, where many Falun Gong practitioners reportedly are imprisoned, stated the cause of death was “falling from bed,” but He’s brother claimed he found other injuries and bruises on He’s body.

According to a media report, Yu Weiping, an inmate at Rushan Detention Center in Weihai, Shandong Province, died in November 2009. His family found small holes in his chest and bruises on his body. Authorities told the family the holes were scars left from pimples; however, an autopsy revealed that sharp objects pierced Yu’s chest, rupturing his heart. The family reported the death to the Weihai Public Security Bureau and demanded an investigation. By year’s end there was no reported response.

According to official media reports, 197 persons died and 1,700 were injured during the July 2009 rioting in Urumqi. In November 2009 eight ethnic Uighurs and one ethnic Han were executed without due process for crimes committed during the riots. At year’s end 26 persons had been sentenced to death; nine others reportedly received suspended death sentences. Of these, three were reportedly ethnic Hans and the rest were Uighurs. In April a Uighur woman became the second woman sentenced to death for involvement in the violence. In December Uighur journalist Memetjan Abdulla was sentenced to life in prison for transmitting information about the riots because he translated an article from a Chinese-language Web site and posted it on a Uighur-language Web site. China Daily reported that, according to the president of the XUAR Supreme People’s Court, courts in the XUAR had tried 376 individuals in 2010 for “crimes against national security” and their involvement in the July 2009 violence.

Defendants in criminal proceedings were executed following convictions that sometimes lacked due process and adequate channels for appeal.

TIBET SECTION

Deprivation of Life

There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings; however, it was not possible to verify independently these reports. There were no reports that officials investigated or punished those responsible for the killings.

In August police shot and killed a Tibetan during a mining protest in PhayulCounty in Ganzi (Kardze) Prefecture. State media claimed the Tibetan was shot accidentally when police fired warning shots at protesters.

In December 2009 33-year-old Tibetan nun Yangkyi Dolma died of unknown causes in a Chengdu hospital after eight months in police custody. She was severely beaten by police and arrested in March 2009 after she joined a protest in GanziCounty, Ganzi Prefecture, Sichuan Province calling for human rights and the swift return of the Dalai Lama.

No further information was available regarding the January 2009 death of Pema Tsepag following his beating by authorities; the March 2009 killing of Phuntsok Rabten by public security agents; the March 2009 killing of Panchou Lede in a clash between soldiers and farmers; and the August 2009 death of Kalden following his torture in a Lhasa prison.

Following the outbreak of protests in March 2008, the government reported that 22 persons were killed in the Lhasa violence, including 18 civilians, one police officer, and three rioters. However, outside observers, including Tibetan exile groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), variously placed the number of persons killed in Tibetan areas due to official suppression that began March 10 at between 100 and 218.

There were reports of persons tried, found guilty, and executed for their activities during the 2008 protests. Trials and executions were not transparent, and requests by foreign observers to attend trials were denied. There was not enough information available to determine whether they were afforded due process.

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1 Response » to “Some perspective on Bo Xilai and the murder mystery”

  1. Aritcle 28 of the Chinese Communist Party Constitution: has been revised to read “The State maintains public order and suppresses treasonable and other criminal activities that endanger State security . . . ” What constitutes the endagerment of the State is arbitrary. The legal system in China is what needs reform. But now that Politburo members are being tossed in, I’m starting to like it.

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