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China Charges Bo Xilai's Wife In British Man's Killing


China announced today that it is prosecuting the wife of a disgraced party official for the murder of a British man. It's the latest sensational twist in the country's biggest political scandal in decades. NPR's Louisa Lim joins us now from Beijing. Louisa, could you bring us up to speed on this scandal and what the latest news is?

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Yes, Linda. Well, today we had this sudden announcement by the Xinhua news agency that Gu Kailai, the wife of this disgraced official Bo Xilai has recently been prosecuted for intentional homicide. Now she's alleged to have poisoned a British man named Neil Heywood last November. And the report accused her of acting together with a family aide, a retainer called Zhang Xiaojun, who's also been indicted.

Now, the report didn't say when they were indicted. It also didn't say when the trial will be held. But it did say the fact that their crimes are clear and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial, few defendants in China are acquitted at trial, and the wording of that Xinhua report seems to indicate that the verdict at trial is pretty much a forgone conclusion.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, who is Neil Heywood, the man she's accused of murdering, and do we have any clearer idea what her motive might have been?

LIM: Well, he's a British businessman who's had a longstanding relationship with the family. He is believed to have had business dealings with Gu Kailai, and he also helped her and her husband Bo Xilai get their son, Bo Guagua, into English boarding schools, including Harrow. And he seemed to have acted as something of a mentor to their son while he was in school and then at university in England.

Xinhua said that Gu Kailai and Heywood had fallen out over economic interests. And then the latest report gave a little bit more detail. It said that Gu was worried about Heywood's threats to the personal security of her son and that's why she poisoned him. So that's the first time we really heard of any official motive like that. But it did not give any further indication about what kind of threats there might have been.

WERTHEIMER: Given the impending power transition, this must be a very embarrassing thing for the Chinese Communist Party? Why on earth do you think they went ahead with it?

LIM: Well, it is very embarrassing for them indeed, and it's also quite politically risky. I mean, Bo Xilai, the husband of Gu Kailai, had been very, very high up in the hierarchy. So this whole episode has been seen as extremely damaging to the party, both at home and overseas, that someone so high up in the hierarchy could be implicated, involved or his relatives could be involved in such a scandalous case.

It's also the case that Bo Xilai is a charismatic figure. He's the son of a revolutionary leader and he's been quite popular. So taking him down in this way is a big risk, because it could destabilize quite a delicate power balance between the right and the left in politics in China. But it seems that the leadership thought there was no alternative.

WERTHEIMER: It still does seem unusual for China to air its internal problems in such a public way, even though we don't have all the details, we have some of the details. How did all of this come to light?

LIM: Well, it really came out in the most bizarre, dramatic fashion when Bo Xilai's former police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu near Chongqing and he spent 36 hours holed up in the consulate. It's believed that he went to the consulate because he had told Bo Xilai about the police investigation into Heywood's death and his wife's possible involvement, and Bo Xilai had turned against him

WERTHEIMER: Louisa Lim, thank you very much.

LIM: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Louisa Lim, reporting from Beijing. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.
Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.