Does China’s Gu Kailai deserve a life in prison?

Does China’s Gu Kailai deserve a life in prison?

By M.D. Nalapat | 26 August, 2012
In 1959, Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati (left), a naval commander, murdered Prem Ahuja, his wife Sylvia’s lover.
China has a level of personal freedom that would be the envy of those not fortunate enough to live along the California coast.

For the well-heeled (and hence deep-pocketed) woman of substance in China, to wear a personable western boyfriend on one arm while sporting a Gucci handbag on the other is the norm. Western males, especially the Brits with their charming accents and sense of humour, are an essential fashion accessory in wealthy circles in Beijing and Shanghai. Most such tie-ups are not formal, the reason being that several of the society ladies in question are already married, to influential (and rich) Chinese. The male half of such informal Sino-European pairs is usually passed off as a "consultant" or an "artist" or as "photographers". Interestingly, Chinese men do not seem to share the fascination for western women that their counterparts in Japan, India or West Asia have. Their female companions are usually local.

Although conventional wisdom defines China as an authoritarian state, and there is little doubt that any effort to prise the country loose from the grip of the Communist Party would be met with retribution, the reality is that society in China has a level of personal freedom that would be the envy of those not fortunate enough to live along the California coast. While the elite there (as everywhere else) live in a world of their own, even those less affluent live a social life that is full and varied. A personable "fashion accessory" is not necessarily restricted to those with several hundred million euros in a Swiss bank. Many Chinese women working in establishments in the bigger cities have the same distinction of possessing a western boyfriend. They, and those who have yet to acquire the ultimate status symbol of a western companion, would have been glued to their satellite dishes watching foreign coverage of the murder by Gu Kailai of Neil Heywood. The lady is the spouse of one of the most prominent politicians in China, now disgraced. The other, of course, was a "consultant".

Given the extremely high value placed on the single male child in Chinese society, if Gu Kailai is being truthful when she claims that Heywood threatened to do harm to her son Bo Guagua, now slumming it at one of the pricier degree shops in the UK, it is understandable why she felt he had to go. But is the cover story true? If it were, then Heywood was a danger to the life of Gu Kailai's son. If so, and had Gu Kailai been from the West and Neil Heywood from China, and the courtroom been in the EU, the odds are that she would have been released into psychiatric care. After all, the prosecution itself admits that she was "mentally disturbed" when she ordered the killing, and that her act was motivated by the perceived need to protect her son. If these two propositions are true, Gu Kailai does not deserve to spend the next dozen-odd years in prison, as she will now.

Rewind to India 1959, and to the Commander Nanavati case, where a naval officer came upon his spouse and a Bombay based businessman, Prem Ahuja mutually engaged in "aerobic exercises" in the altogether. When Nanavati asked Ahuja if he was prepared to marry his (British-born) wife and look after their three children, the ungallant response was that he, Ahuja, was not obligated to marry all the women that he had "aerobic exercises" with. The gallant Nanavati pulled out a revolver and shot him on the spot. And because a jury of his peers subsequently acquitted Nanavati of any crime, Jawaharlal Nehru ensured that trial by jury got abandoned in India, thereby returning the country to its colonial past, whereby a single judge rather than a lay jury had the sole responsibility for finding a defendant guilty or innocent. Most would have judged the provocation faced by the naval officer extreme enough to warrant his acquittal, but not Nehru, who was clearly angered that leniency was shown to Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati.

The punishment (of life imprisonment) given to Commander Nanavati (despite his earlier acquittal in what was the last jury trial in India) parallels the same verdict that was handed down to Gu Kailai on 20 August 2012 in the Hefei courtroom. Both taken together indicate the distance that India and China have to traverse before reaching the same standards as countries such as Germany, that was almost continuously authoritarian till 1945, or Spain (that got freed from dictatorship of one kind or the other only in 1977),which treat their citizens with far greater consideration. If the prosecution's version in both trials was correct, neither Nanavati nor Gu deserved a life sentence.


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