The murder trial of the wife of a former rising star in the ruling Chinese Communist Party has thrown the spotlight on suspected abuses of power by the country's political elite, experts say, as a new survey sheds light on the growing overseas connections of newly wealthy Chinese.
Gu Kailai, wife of former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, "used brutal means" along with her former employee Zhang Xiaojun in the attempted murder of British businessman Neil Heywood last November, according to official statements released by a court in the eastern province of Anhui after her trial last Thursday.
Initial reports of the relationship between Gu and Heywood focused on the latter's help in transferring large remittances overseas on behalf of the family, including money aimed at paying for the expensive private education of the couple's son Bo Guagua.
He was seen as a trusted person handling the family's foreign finances, possibly because of his British nationality.
But financial issues were notably absent from the official account of Heywood's murder, with a report released through China's official Xinhua news agency on Friday saying Gu admitted guilt and blamed her actions on a mental breakdown over fears Heywood had threatened her son.
The court heard Heywood had demanded 13 million pounds (U.S. $20 million), and sent Bo Guagua an email threatening "you will be destroyed," a source who attended the hearing, who requested anonymity, told Agence France Presse.
Heywood's murder and charges of a cover-up sparked the biggest political scandal in China for years and led to the downfall of Bo, who had been tipped to become one of the ruling Communist Party's top leaders.
The transfer of Chinese funds overseas, highlighted by Heywood's murder case, may intensify as more Chinese pump investments overseas.
A recent survey of a million of China's wealthiest people conducted by Hurun Report and GroupM Knowledge found that growing numbers of the country's richest people are seeking to move overseas, invest in property or send their children to university in other countries.
More than 85 percent of them plan to send their children to be educated overseas, while 44 percent reported having plans to emigrate or to acquire a foreign passport.
Around one-third of China’s millionaires own investable assets overseas, the survey showed, while overseas assets account for 19 percent of millionaires’ total assets.
Jason Z. Yin, a professor of strategy management and international business at Seton Hall University, said he was unsure about the accuracy of the Hurun report, because of the formidable banking barriers to Chinese people trying to remit funds overseas.
However, he shed light on what was reportedly a source of tension between Gu and Heywood before he was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room last November.
"Recently a friend of mine tried to send back a few hundred thousand yuan to China, and the bank wouldn't allow [the recipients] to withdraw it until they had answered a series of questions about where it came from, what it was intended for, and what it would be spent on," Yin said.
"Now they are saying that [these people] are moving their assets overseas, but can the banks just be ignoring this?"
According to U.S.-based China commentator Liu Nianchun, many of China's wealthiest people feel very insecure in China because their wealth, even if it is hard-earned and legal, isn't fully protected under the current system.
"China's political system is untrustworthy from top to bottom," said Liu. "There are no guarantees in law."
"Look at Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun [former Chongqing police chief]; the law was no protection against them whatsoever; legal property could become illegal property overnight," he said.
The Communist Party has begun investigating claims of official abuse of power during anti-gang campaigns in the southwestern city of Chongqing masterminded by Bo and Wang, lawyers familiar with the allegations said in May.
Li Zhuang, a whistle-blowing lawyer who worked on a high-profile anti-gang case in 2009, said via his account on the popular Sina microblogging service that the authorities were quietly probing claims of forced confessions and rights abuses during the campaigns, which won political plaudits at the time for Bo and his then-police chief Wang Lijun.
Bo's campaigns have been likened to the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) by those who were targeted, and lawyers linked to some of the city's wealthiest people say their jail sentences had more to do with the government's targeting of their assets than any involvement with organized crime.
Li himself served 18 months in jail for making allegations of torture against his client, Chongqing billionaire and motorcycle magnate Gong Gangmo, who was found guilty during Bo and Wang's "strike black" campaign.
A Beijing-based lawyer for Chongqing businessman Li Xiuwu, who was jailed for 18 years during Bo's "strike black" campaigns, said he had filed an application to have his client's conviction overturned in the wake of Bo's removal from office on March 15.
Wang Xin said the court had given no response to the application, however, suggesting that the authorities were unlikely to encourage attempts to rehabilitate those targeted under Bo's campaigns in Chongqing.
"There has been no progress at all with the application to overturn the conviction," Wang said. "They didn't formally accept it; they just took our documentation."
"This affair is very complicated, and it's not being handled entirely according to legal process," he added.
Verdict to come
Lawyers linked to the Gu trial say they expect a verdict from the authorities within a month.
Political analysts say that Beijing will likely seek to wrap up the entire Chongqing scandal ahead of a crucial leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress later this year.
Lili Yang of the U.S.-based Laogai Research Foundation said she wasn't convinced by recent media reports suggesting the Communist Party could use the Congress to begin reforms to its political system.
"Actually I think that when the 18th Party Congress is over, people may well discover that there was no work done at all on political reforms," Yang said.
"We have had these same hopes and expectations [at Party Congresses] over the past few decades, and the same disappointment," she said.
Reported by Yang Jiadai and Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.