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Bo Xilai trial transcripts expose a privileged world of wealth

Bo Xilai's wife, Gu Kailai, describes the lavish gifts the family received from Chinese tycoon Xu Ming.

August 23, 2013|By Barbara Demick
  • Journalists watch Gu Kailai, center, as her recorded testimony is presented during the corruption trial of her husband, Bo Xilai, in court in Jinan, China.
Journalists watch Gu Kailai, center, as her recorded testimony is presented… (Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty…)

JINAN, China — Meet the Bo family.

Starring in this dysfunctional drama is Bo Xilai, the charismatic Communist Party heavyweight 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 cast of characters, such as the Englishman killed by the wife in a business spat and a conniving 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.

This drama is not so much about sex (although there is some) as it is 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 — and for trips to Cuba and Argentina, Venice and Paris. Guagua flew to Germany to see the 2006 World Cup.

When Guagua mentioned he wanted to visit Africa with some friends, his mother rang Xu and presto — the businessman chartered a plane for six people from Dubai to Mt. Kilimanjaro. 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.)

"It was convenient to call Xu Ming," Gu, 54, testified on video, appearing calm and well-coiffed despite serving a prison term for murder. "We were in the habit of calling him. He used to pay for things. We didn't consider him an outsider."

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.

Like so many vacation homes, the villa in Cannes proved to be a money pit and, worse, Gu's undoing. Despite a renovation, 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 that Gu owed him $2.3 million for his share of the property and his work.

Heywood "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 increasingly paranoid, convinced that 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 that 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, depicted himself as an estranged husband and father uninvolved with the family finances because he was so busy with the weighty affairs of state. And affairs of heart. He said his wife had been virtually living in England with their son for some years as result of his infidelity.

“I had an affair and she was furious about that. She took Guagua away, to a large extent to get back at me,’’ Bo said Saturday.

On the occasions that the estranged couple saw one another,  he testified earlier, his well-educated wife wouldn’t have been so “low class” as to talk about small financial details like plane tickets.

Or even big ones like, for example, a six-bedroom 40,000-square-foot villa in France?

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