JINAN, China — Meet the Bo family.
Starring in this dysfunctional drama is Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party heavyweight who had been angling to head China. His ice-queen lawyer wife, Gu Kailai, slowly descending into violence. The couple’s spoiled son, Guagua — the name means “melon” in Chinese — who receives gifts including a $130,000 trip to Africa and a $12,000 Segway from a businessman currying favor with his father.
Then there’s the supporting characters, such as the Englishman killed by the wife in a business spat and a police chief who blows the whistle on the whole bunch of them.
The corruption trial of Bo Xilai is offering the world a peek past the vermilion walls of the Chinese leadership compounds and through the tinted glass of their motorcades into a private sphere of immense entitlement. It is a cross between reality television and a soap opera, though adapted for the 21st century, with the transcripts being microblogged by the court and closely followed by hundreds of thousands of Chinese.
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This drama is mostly about money. Lots of it, stuffed into safe-deposit boxes and used to buy real estate, plane tickets, hotel rooms and to charter private jets.
In video and written testimony presented to the Jinan Intermediate Court on Friday, the second day of the trial, Gu Kailai described how she would telephone Xu Ming, a multimillionaire businessman, whenever she needed money.
Xu, a petrochemical tycoon, was used as a bank and travel agent. The family called him when Guagua ran up a credit-card bill he couldn’t afford. Xu booked and paid for frequent trips between China and Britain — where Guagua attended the prestigious Harrow prep school and later Oxford University — and for trips to Cuba and Argentina, Venice and Paris.
When Guagua mentioned he wanted to visit Africa with friends, his mother rang Xu and, presto, the businessman chartered a plane for six people from Dubai to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
When Guagua had friends coming to Beijing, he would ask Xu to reserve (and pay for) their rooms, in five-star hotels of course. (According to the testimony, this included a delegation of 40 people from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where Guagua received his graduate degree.)
Gu naturally turned to Xu when she decided to invest in a villa with a swimming pool on the French Riviera. She and a French architect friend, Patrick Devillers, set up a holding company into which Xu deposited more than $3 million. Devillers and later the Englishman, Neil Heywood, were appointed to register the property in their names and manage it.
The villa in Cannes proved to be a money pit and, worse, Gu’s undoing. It was never rented out for enough money to cover taxes and expenses. Angry about the failed investment and convinced her foreign friends were cheating her, Gu removed Heywood from the deed in 2011.
Heywood was furious and insisted Gu owed him $2.3 million for his share of the property and his work. He “threatened if his demand wasn’t met, he would completely expose” her overseas wealth, Devillers testified in a written statement to the court released Friday.
Gu in turn became convinced Heywood would kidnap and kill her son, who was at Harvard then. She asked Wang Lijun, the police chief in Chongqing, where Bo was Communist Party secretary, to provide protection for her son.
Heywood, 41, was found dead in a Chongqing hotel in November 2011. Gu pleaded guilty last year to poisoning him.
In court Friday, Bo said he thought his wife was mentally ill and her testimony wasn’t reliable. “She became crazy. She started telling lies,” he said. He recalled that after Heywood’s death, Gu told him she imagined herself as a legendary Chinese assassin who murdered an emperor.
Bo, handling much of his own defense, has depicted himself as an estranged husband and father too busy with the weighty affairs of state to pay attention to the family. He said his well-educated wife wouldn’t be so “low class” as to discuss with him details such as who paid for plane tickets.
On Saturday Bo faced off with Wang, the former police chief. It was the first time the two were known to have seen each other since February 2012, when Wang fled Chongqing and took shelter in the U.S. Consulate. There, Wang told U.S. officials that Bo’s wife had poisoned Heywood, and that Bo was persecuting Wang because he knew about the murder.
Wang, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for defection and other crimes, testified for the prosecution. Bo stared at him and took blame, to a degree, for the episode leading to Wang’s flight.
“I made mistakes; I am very ashamed and I am willing to take appropriate responsibility, but whether it’s a crime or not a crime is another matter,” Bo testified. He added that he had not bent the law to protect his wife, because he did not believe she had killed Heywood, and he had demoted Wang right before he fled for the consulate because he believed that Wang was unstable.
Bo is charged with abuse of power for demoting Wang and, prosecutors say, taking other steps to obstruct justice in the Heywood matter. He is also charged with taking bribes and embezzling amounts totaling $4.4 million.
He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Many in China, however, believe nothing Bo says will alter a guilty verdict probably determined in advance.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.