The List

Gu Kai-lies?

The wacky and not-so-wacky conspiracy theories about China's trial of the century.

On Aug. 9, Gu Kailai, the wife of deposed Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, stood trial for murder in a courtroom in the central Chinese city of Hefei. The 53-year-old Gu had been accused of poisoning Neil Heywood, a British businessman, in the trial of a century for China, and one inextricably linked to its biggest political scandal in decades. But after an anti-climactic, seven-hour trial, closed to all foreign media and observers with the exception of two British diplomats, Gu was pronounced guilty. On Aug. 20, the court sentenced Gu to death with 2-year reprieve; according to George Washington University law professor Donald Clarke, this means that "if she commits no new intentional crimes while in prison, that sentence will be commuted after two years to life imprisonment."

The role of Chinese media, as Chinese officials have repeatedly said, is to be the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, and not as checks on the government's power or purveyors of truth. But the case itself begged speculation. No witnesses testified publicly, and though the court improbably suggested that Gu had killed Heywood to protect her Harvard- and Oxford-educated son Bo Guagua -- no one has convincingly established the basic motive for the murder.

No wonder the Chinese social media is alight with rumor and innuendo about Gu's case. Because if the mentally unstable wife of a high-ranking Chinese official poisoned a British businessman to protect her son, isn't anything possible? Here are the five most interesting theories floating around:

The Gu on TV was a body double

The most pervasive rumor states that a woman who looks like Gu replaced her during the trial. Maybe Gu is free; maybe she's dead. One posting, noted by the Wall Street Journal, shows a photo of the handsome, angular Gu next to an image of the much heavier, fleshy-faced woman who stood in court. "Huge News," the post proclaims. "Gu Kailai's Body Double is the roughly 46-year-old Zhao Tianyun from Langfang [a city in central China's Hebei province]. For the fairness and justice of society, the human flesh search engine has found the fake Gu Kailai." Censors have since blocked the phrase ‘body double,' and ‘Zhao Tianyun.' Interestingly, the Financial Times cited "two security experts familiar with facial recognition software," who said that "the person shown in state television footage of the courtroom was not Ms. Gu."


Gu will be free within a few years

Gu might have gotten off lightly. The Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human rights organization that campaigns for better treatment and clemency for Chinese prisoners, wrote that Gu could serve just nine years: "The vast majority of sentences of death with two-year reprieve -- an estimated 99.9 percent in 1995 -- are commuted to life imprisonment after two years, and people serving life sentences are eligible for medical parole after seven years."

But the more conspiratorial corners of the Chinese Internet believe she'll be free sooner than that. The BBC's Chinese-language service quoted an anonymous netizen from the wealthy province of Jiangsu saying, "After two years will probably have her sentenced reduced to life imprisonment, and then she can apply for medical parole."

There was a surprising amount of disappointment on the Chinese Internet that Gu won't be executed, A post on Boxun, an overseas Chinese news portal, wondered "Why did she just get death with reprieve?"  Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate developer with almost 10 million followers on Sina Weibo, asked "Can you also get death with reprieve for directly murdering someone?" In a post on Tencent's popular micro-blogging service that was widely picked up by Western and overseas Chinese media outlets, the well-known lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan asked: "Let us think -- if it were an ordinary citizen who killed a foreigner for economic benefit, what would the verdict be?"

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Heywood was a spy

"If Bo Gu Kailai really did kill a spy, then both governments found a way out with this death with reprieve," wrote Weibo user WestWingWife. The phrase ‘Gu Kailai spy' is blocked on Sina Weibo. British and American media picked up on the spy angle in March as his case began to come to light; according to CNN, Heywood had advised for Hakluyt and Co., a consulting firm founded by former officers in the British spy agency MI6. But in April, British Foreign Secretary William Hague issued a rare letter denying the rumors: "Mr Heywood was not an employee of the British Government in any capacity."

Still, at a time when sentiment against foreigners in running high in China, such rumors die hard. "If we're going by my attitude, I think the sentencing was too harsh," wrote one commentator in the online forum China Gate. "Who knows if Heywood was a spy; the possibility isn't unreasonably low. When you kill a spy, not only should you not get sentenced to death, you should be commended."

Bo will be freed

Bo hasn't been seen since or heard from since March; top Chinese officials are likely still debating his future, and what crime to charge him with. By trying to focus the brunt of the suspicion on Gu, who has been accused of the tangible crime of murdering someone, allows for a veneer of party unity. In addition, Bo remains popular, both in Chongqing and nationally among leftists and possibly even some elite members in the party; putting him under house arrest but not in prison could be stabilizing. Political commentator Zhang Lifan told the South China Morning Post that Bo would likely escape criminal charges and the most severe punishment he is likely to face is having his party membership revoked.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Gu Kailai's case shows China follows the rule of law

On July 27, two weeks before the trial, the nationalist broadsheet the Global Times wrote, "We believe the court can live up to the expectations of the public and deliver a fair trial."

The Strong Country forum, a bulletin board owned and operated by the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, published the official Xinhua version of the trial on Aug. 21. That official version quotes local Hefei resident Yan Lulu saying, "The People's Court acted fairly and impartially." Another commentator said, "I think the verdict was pretty fair." But China's legal system is utterly beholden to the Communist Party; the idea that this case proves China follows the rule of law is perhaps the most implausible explanation of all.


The List

Five Reasons Julian Assange Will Love Ecuador

If he manages to leave the Ecuadorean embassy, a world of inviting dance clubs and sympathetic political leaders awaits.

Now that Ecuador has granted Julian Assange political asylum, the speculation has shifted to just how the WikiLeaks founder could bust out of the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he's been holed up for two months, and travel to the Andean nation. It won't be easy. The United Kingdom has not relented in its commitment to extradite Assange to Sweden to face sexual assault charges, even floating the idea of revoking the Ecuadorean embassy's diplomatic status so that British police can enter the mission and detain Assange.

But if Assange somehow finds a way out of London and gets himself to Ecuador, how might he like his new home?

We know he already has friends in high places; Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, after all, tweeted "no one is going to terrorize us!" on the eve of the Assange announcement on Thursday, and former Deputy Foreign Minister Kintto Lucas eagerly offered Assange Ecuadorean residency back in 2010. Public opinion, however, may be more divided. Online polls run by Ecuadorean newspapers suggest support for Assange's relocation to Ecuador (sample sizes are admittedly small), but critics such as Colombian international law professor Carlos Estarellas have questioned the wisdom of the government's decision. An editorial today in the daily Hoy wonders whether it will be possible to "reconcile respect for the institution of political asylum with good relations with Great Britain and Sweden."

Whether or not he's welcomed in Quito with open arms, Julian Assange may be charmed by Ecuador. Here are a few reasons why.


There's debate about whether WikiLeaks specifically targeted the United States in releasing secret documents and diplomatic cables, but Assange certainly doesn't have warm feelings toward U.S. officials -- especially given the detention of accused WikiLeaker Bradley Manning and Assange's own fears about Sweden handing him over to U.S. authorities. "I have been attacked by the U.S., from the vice president down, as a high-tech terrorist," he declared in June.   

Assange will find a sympathetic ear in Ecuador's Rafael Correa, a U.S.-trained economist who has established alliances and trade relationships with American opponents such as Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, cancelled plans for a trade deal with the United States, prohibited the U.S. military from using an air base on Ecuador's Pacific coast for drug surveillance flights, and kicked two U.S. diplomats out of the country in a row over an aid program. During an appearance (or should we say love fest?) on Assange's talk show in May, Correa, who was initially critical of WikiLeaks and who expelled the U.S. ambassador to Ecuador after the release of a cable suggesting that Correa had appointed a corrupt police chief, praised the organization. "The WikiLeaks have made us stronger," he noted, "as the main accusations made by the [U.S.] embassy were due to our excessive nationalism and defense of the sovereignty of the Ecuadorean government."

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Friendly Neighbors

Correa has allied himself with other left-wing Latin American leaders such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and the Castro brothers in Cuba, all of whom have issued defenses of WikiLeaks as well. Morales claimed that the cables exposed the "empire's" efforts to interfere with Latin America's economies, policies, and identities through "espionage," while Chavez lauded WikiLeaks' "bravery and courage" and demanded that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton resign over revelations of a U.S. strategy to isolate Venezuela. At a forum of leftist Latin American leaders in Sao Paulo in July, a joint resolution expressed support for "the universal right to free information" and "the protection offered by Ecuador to Julian Assange."

Perhaps no one, however, was as effusive as Fidel Castro, who called the leaked diplomatic cables a "colossal scandal" for the United States and admiringly dubbed WikiLeaks the "Deep Throat of the Internet" (of course, he also argued that WikiLeaks demonstrated that Osama bin Laden was a U.S. spy).

Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images


Press Restrictions

Many commentators have noted the incongruity of Assange, a champion of free expression (WikiLeaks expands the scope of freedom by trying to lay ‘all the mysteries and secrets of government' before the public," he writes), hitting it off with Correa -- who has repeatedly butted heads with Ecuador's private news outlets, in the process winning major libel lawsuits against the newspaper El Universo and two journalists and shutting down radio and television stations. Ecuador has one of the worst press freedom records in Latin America, according to Freedom House, and Correa has referred to journalists as "assassins with ink."

Assange did ask Correa about free expression during his talk show interview, but he largely let Correa's contention that economic elites control the media and harass the government go unchallenged. Perhaps that's due to Assange's own relationship with some of WikiLeaks' major media partners souring in recent years; his partnership with the New York Times crumbled in part because of a front-page profile that the WikiLeaks founder dismissed as a "smear piece." When Correa, at the end of his interview, signed off with, "Welcome to the club of the persecuted," Assange chuckled and nodded knowingly. Perhaps he'll find the Ecuadorean press less "hostile."

Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

A Wide-Open Internet Market

As an accomplished hacker and Internet denizen, Assange may be interested to learn that only 20 percent of Ecuadoreans have Internet access, with web users primarily concentrated in large cities. As the New York Times noted back in 2003:

Internet entrepreneurs flourish in Ecuador's largest cities, but many are educated businessmen with ties to the United States. Thousands of households in Quito (the capital) and Guayaquil (the largest city) have Internet access, but few rural communities have telephone lines.

The discrepancies make experts pessimistic. They worry that the rapid pace of change in the technology industry will cause third-world nations like Ecuador to slip further behind Europe and North America.

Might Assange launch an improbable second career as an Internet consultant or a pitchman for Ecuadorean broadband?

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Dance Clubs

On Thursday, the New York Times included a strange blurb in its report on Assange's asylum case: friends have encouraged the WikiLeaks founder to play music and dance for physical activity as he huddles in the Ecuadorean embassy. In fact, the anecdote isn't all that surprising. In April 2011, after all, a video surfaced on YouTube that allegedly showed Assange at a night club in Reykjavik, Iceland, showing off his incredibly awkward dance moves (a former colleague once recalled that "Julian took up a lot of space when he danced -- almost like a tribesman performing some ritual").

As the Guardian's Ben Westwood recently pointed out in a travel guide for Assange, Ecuador offers excellent dancing -- from salsa to reggaeton -- in Quito's Mariscal district and in the coastal cities of Guayaquil and Montañita. Whatever venue Assange chooses, it's sure to have more space for dancing than his current digs in London. 

Pablo Cozzaglio/AFP/Getty Images