BEIJING – Gu Kailai has been many things to many people: devoted wife, ambitious lawyer, gracious host, menacing businesswoman and, now, China's most famous murder suspect.
The wife of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai could go on trial in the coming days, after being formally charged with the murder of a British businessman who was a close associate of the Bo family. The murder is at the center of a messy political scandal that has highlighted divisions in the Chinese leadership ahead of a once-a-decade political transition later this year.
Through interviews with Gu's former associates and biographical details from official Chinese media, a portrait emerges of a woman who rose out of a trying childhood during nationwide upheaval to become a high-flying politician's wife skilled at turning on the charm when the going was smooth, yet quick to turn hostile when crossed. One account also indicates that Gu's relationship with the murder victim, Neil Heywood, was tinged with tension at least a decade ago, and that she and another figure in the scandal, a French architect, might have been lovers.
Impressions of Gu varied: Two American guests Gu invited to the Chinese city of Dalian in 1997 described her as a kind and attentive host who put the visitors up at a fancy resort, personally took them around the city and feted them with banquets. But a British businessman who worked for two years with Gu in a venture said she could be vicious when angry, once threatening to throw him in jail if he went to China.
Gu was accompanying her son, Guagua, in the English coastal city of Bournemouth where he was attending school in 1999 when she brought a somewhat unusual request to the director of a now-dissolved company that offered rides in helium balloons.
"I'd really like one of these for my home city in China," said Gu, according to Peter Giles Hall, then-director of Vistarama Balloon Systems.
That city was Dalian, where Bo was the top Communist Party official at the time, in China's northeast. Hall said Gu wanted the balloon to look like a red-and-white soccer ball, and that a Dalian chemicals company that sponsored a local football club was buying it. Hall said the always-impeccably dressed woman introduced herself as "Horus" — presumably after the Egyptian falcon-headed god of goodness and light.
Hall said that though she lived in a modest apartment, Gu's attire and a penchant for diamonds and emeralds showed off her affluence. "She went out to make an impression. Always stilettoes, skirts, stockings, very expensive jewelry," Hall said. "You'd see her walking down the street and you look at her and you'd know she was extremely wealthy."
She was at first charming and polite. But Gu became less friendly when Hall refused her request to help conceal money meant for tuition fees for Guagua at the prestigious British boarding school Harrow by overcharging her for a balloon part known as the winch, which tethers the balloon to the ground.
"When paying for the winch, she wanted us to charge her 250,000 pounds for it because she wanted us to pay the school fees to Harrow," Hall said, explaining that 150,000 pounds would go to the school. "We couldn't have done that. Our financial people wouldn't allow it anyhow. She got very upset by that as well."
Other difficulties in the arrangement arose because she wanted the balloon made and delivered to Dalian before an important event in early 2000, a deadline Hall told her was impossible to meet. When the balloon failed to make it to Dalian in time, due to delays in payment from Gu and other reasons, Gu issued an angry threat, Hall said.
"She said, 'I have very powerful people in government, we can get you thrown in jail, you'll never see the light of day,'" Hall recounted. "We thought, oh my God, she's turned very nasty. She has quite a sort of quick temper."
Whether Gu actually had the power to make good on that supposed threat is unclear. But as the youngest daughter of a renowned Communist revolutionary, Gu Jingsheng, Gu was considered, like her husband, to be a "princeling" — someone whose political pedigree affords them entry into the business world and Communist Party leadership. That status is one of privilege and influence.
This was not always the case for Gu. During the tumultuous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong's radical experiment in class warfare, Gu's parents were jailed and her four elder sisters sent to the countryside for "re-education." Left to fend for herself while still in elementary school, Gu worked at a butcher's and then as a bricklayer. In later years, she learnt to play the Chinese lute so well that she performed it for the soundtrack of an official documentary on Mao's death.
Like her husband, Gu attended the elite Peking University, though they did not meet until 1984, when Bo was party secretary of a county in Dalian that Gu visited while accompanying a professor on a study tour.
Gu has described being impressed by Bo's character when she made his acquaintance. "He is a lot like my father, an extremely idealistic person," she told state media. "He lived in a small, dirty house in the county seat that looked like it could never be clean no matter how much one tried. He served Professor Fu and me apples that were stored in a torn paper box that was on the table, and then he began to talk about his ideals."
The couple married and Gu bore their son, Guagua, in 1987. Gu moved her law firm from Beijing to Dalian about a decade later. Then followed one of her legal career's most prominent victories: winning a 1997 lawsuit in the U.S. state of Alabama for a Dalian-based state-owned company, which resulted in the overturning of a court-imposed $1.4 million fine.
American attorney Marion Wynne, one of the lawyers who represented the Chinese company in the suit, said Gu was instrumental in the legal team's communication with company officials. Later, Wynne was among a group that was invited to Dalian to celebrate the victory, and he said Gu was a warm and gracious host who spared no effort to make them feel at home. He said he had been surprised by the news of her implication in a murder case.
"I feel concerned for Gu Kailai because I only knew her as a very nice, kind person and I just hope that justice gets done and that she doesn't get a raw deal over there just because she's on the wrong end of some political struggle," Wynne said in a phone interview from his office in Fairhope, Ala.
Gu left a similar impression on Robert Schenkein, whose Denver-based PR company advised the legal team in the Alabama case. "I found her to be very polite, very understated, very smart. These allegations that she's conniving, a Mata Hari type-woman, to me are absolutely 180 degrees different from anything I ever saw," Schenkein said.
Schenkein, who also went to Dalian with the legal team, said Gu confided to him then that she had been disappointed by central Chinese leadership's lack of acknowledgement of the legal victory — an indication of Bo's early friction with Beijing.
"The people in Beijing had said this is a complete waste of time, you're not going to win any kind of legal action in an American court, and it's not worth pursuing," Schenkein said. "And her husband and she both thought it was worth pursuing, and they were right in the long run, but nobody in Beijing ever acknowledged the outcome or the positive nature of it because they would have lost face because they had advised against it."
Schenkein said he was also impressed by Bo's charismatic personality, which was unlike the staid style of most Chinese officials. One night at a banquet, Bo went around the room shaking hands with each guest, he said. "He was behaving more like an American politician working the crowd."
Also unlike most other Chinese politicians who hardly acknowledge their spouses, Bo frequently mentioned his wife's contribution to his career. Among the last things that Bo expressed publicly this March was an emotive tribute to his wife, who like him had come under intense media scrutiny as the scandal unfolded. Bo said Gu gave up her illustrious legal career to avoid the appearance of benefitting from his political influence.
"She was worried that people might talk, so she closed her booming law firm early on," Bo told reporters during the annual legislative session in Beijing that was his last public appearance. "For so many years, she has just been reading books, doing art and housework, and quietly standing by me. For the sacrifices she has made, I feel most touched, and also very guilty."
But in England, Gu gave no appearance of having retired into a life as a homebody and, on the contrary, seemed to be involved with potentially shady ties between businesses and her husband's administration, according to Hall, the balloon company operator. Hall said his suspicions were aroused when some of the payments for the balloon deal were made in checks from the Dalian Free Trade Zone even though Gu had said a plastics company was paying for it. The company, Dalian Shide Group, is headed by a multimillionaire named Xu Ming, who has dropped from sight since Bo came under investigation.
Gu also introduced Hall to other people who later emerged as key figures in the scandal, including the murder victim Heywood, whom Hall said handled Gu's financial affairs, as well as the French architect Patrick Devillers, another business associate of Gu's.
Hall said Devillers and Gu appeared to be romantically involved. "He used to hold her hand. We used to see them around Bournemouth, they seemed to us to be more than friends, probably lovers, that's what we thought at the time," he said.
Devillers later settled in Cambodia, but recently was summoned to China to assist with investigations that, though unspecified, are likely related to Gu's case.
Hall said Gu and Heywood often fought over money, primarily because Gu felt that the Briton was overstepping. "He'd say, just leave it to me, Horus, I deal with this, not you, and she'd get agitated because she'd feel like he was making decisions but it was her money."
"We rather got the impression that she wasn't, if you like, bright enough in terms of financial terms, to understand exactly what was happening, whereas Neil plainly was, I think," Hall said. "He was much more savvy in that respect."
How exactly Gu and Heywood's relationship played out in later years remains unclear, but it ended with the discovery late last year of Heywood's body in a hotel room in Chongqing, where Bo was party secretary. That is, until his police chief made a surprise visit to a U.S. consulate where he apparently divulged suspicions of Gu's involvement in Heywood's death, which sparked the current political crisis.
Gillian Wong can be reached at http://twitter.com/gillianwong