Wife Of Fallen Chinese Leader Charged With Murder

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The wife of a former Chinese Communist Party leader has been charged with the murder of a British businessman. Bo Xilai's wife Gu Kailai and a family aide are accused of poisoning Neil Heywood.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. There has been a development in China's most serious political scandal in decades. The wife of a disgraced politician has been charged with the murder of a British businessman. It's all part of the story of the downfall of the populist leader Bo Xilai and his family. And as NPR's Louisa Lim reports, the charge comes at a sensitive time for the Chinese leadership.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Bogu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun have been charged with intentional homicide...

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Murder most horrid - that's the charge announced on Chinese state TV against the wife of a disgraced politician caught up in a lurid scandal. Along with an aide, she's been indicted for poisoning a British businessman, Neil Heywood, with whom she had business links. Today's announcement gives them motive. It says she was worried about threats to her son's safety from Heywood.

The timing is no coincidence, according to Cheng Li from the Brookings Institution.

CHENG LI: This announcement occurred one day before the opening ceremony of Olympics. Now, this certainly can reduce the coverage on the international front, particularly Neil Heywood, who was a British man. So the London Olympics certainly will distract international attention.

LIM: Other nations are involved in China's scandal, too. There's a French witness, Patrick Devillers, a former business associate of Gu's. Then there was the time spent in the U.S. consulate by Bo Xilai's former police chief, bearing evidence possibly of the murder. No date has yet been given for the trial. The verdict is hardly in doubt. As today's report put it, the evidence is irrefutable and substantial.

Kerry Brown, a China analyst at Chatham House think tank, says it hardly matters.

KERRY BROWN: The relationship between public opinion and what the elite do is pretty loose, and in a way, you know, the party can still write its own script about these things.

LIM: Some see other signs in today's announcement. Journalist Han Pingzao, who's based in Chongqing, notes on telling omission. There's no mention at all of the disgraced politician, Bo Xilai, who had been Communist Party secretary of Chongqing.

HAN PINGZAO: (Through translator) From the fact that his name wasn't mentioned, you can conclude he had nothing to do with this murder. I expect this will be dealt with internally by the party. I don't think he'll face criminal charges.

LIM: Others are less convinced, saying it's too early to tell.

BO XILAI: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Bo Xilai was last seen in public in March at the national legislature, angrily accusing people of smearing his reputation. The scandal has been destabilizing for China's leadership, coming just ahead of a once-in-a-decade power transition this fall. But Kerry Brown says publically, at least, they're presenting a unified front.

BROWN: There's not been any very visible disunity. They may be absolutely at each other's throats but - because of this, Bo's fall. But, you know, publically, it's all been pretty, you know, united. So, in that sense, it's taken a big, big stress test.

LIM: This could be case of China's leaders pulling together at a time of internal crisis, rather than a true alignment of views. But facing an uncomfortably public murder trial and with Bo's fate still to be announced, more stress tests lie ahead for China's leaders. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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