BEIJING - When Gu Kailai was indicted last month for giving a fatal dose of poison to a British businessman, there were swift and almost inevitable comparisons drawn to China’s “other” high-stakes trial with a woman at its notorious centre.  Ms. Gu’s case has shaken the central government, and triggered the spectacular crash of her husband Bo Xilai, once a Communist Party “princeling” tapped to rise through its ranks.

That “other” trial was in 1981, when the “Gang of Four” was accused of masterminding the chaos and suffering of China’s Cultural Revolution.  Jiang Qing, the fourth wife of Chairman Mao Zedong, was considered the one in the group most to blame.  She was vilified as power-hungry and conniving, painted equally as cold-blooded and ‘Mao’s lap dog’.  Jiang Qing was found guilty and condemned to execution though her sentence was later revised to life in prison.  She committed suicide in 1991. 

Zhang Sizhi, a respected lawyer, was ordered by the court to defend Jiang Qing in what was then billed ‘the trial of the century’.  Mr. Zhang is now 85 years old and has rarely been interviewed about his role in history.  He boasts a sharp legal mind and sharper opinions, as I learned when we talked over tea in Beijing.  Here is a partial transcript of that conversation:

What do you expect from the Gu Kailai trial?

The result will be decided by the Communist Party central government, not the court. So I cannot precisely tell what will happen because the political factors are too many. It depends whether Bo Xilai has any responsibility in this case, and what kind of responsibility. Did Bo Xilai know about the Englishman being poisoned? Second, when did he know? Third, to what extent did he know?  Fourth, what did he do after he found out?

Do you see any way for him to survive this politically?

No it is absolutely impossible for him to emerge. Whether or not he is going further downhill depends on the trial result.

There are comparisons being drawn to the case of Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four trial that followed the Cultural Revolution. You defended Jiang Qing. Are there similarities?

They are different in procedures and they are different in the body of the whole thing. Generally speaking Jiang Qing did a lot of bad things politically but they sentenced her as an anti-revolutionary. The pressure (I felt) was less from politics than the mind because the whole country is saying Jiang Qing is a bad person and I needed to defend her.

Are high-profile legal outcomes determined by the government?

Absolutely they do this. In the case of Jiang Qing their discussions were very deep because at the time Deng Xiaoping wanted her dead. Even now (with Gu Kailai) the result will not be released to the lawyer in advance.

So the judge will get a written order?

No, it’s oral. The lawyers in China are very sad -- they appoint you but they don’t necessarily trust you.

What are your impressions of Gu Kailai?

I do not know her personally so I can only judge her from this case but she is known in China to love both power and money. She is not a scapegoat. First and foremost, she is guilty and maybe she covered for Bo Xilai. So the key relies on the evidence:  If Gu Kailai is the only one who is guilty and (the case) does not involve Bo Xilai then I think it will not have much effect on China’s political situation. However, if the trial result suggests that Bo Xilai is involved then that is different.

What could have pushed Wang Lijun, the police chief in Chongqing, to go to the U.S. Consulate there to reveal what he did?

When Wang Lijun first investigated the (Heywood) case he mostly certainly knew it was a murder. Also, as a person he had more problems than just Gu Kailai from when he was a police chief in Dongbei. So the situation for him was indeed very dire. No matter if Wang Lijun is good or bad, he is a smart person. If he had not taken this step it is very likely that he would have been dead.

What does this case expose about the inner workings of the Party and politics?

First, you can see that some of China’s high-level officials are indeed very corrupted. Second, you can see that there are conflicts at the highest levels. They disagree with each other in a lot of things. Third, the current power group, the core leadership, they don’t have enough resolution to deal with this sort of thing. Why, why did they let Bo Xilai rise for such a long time in Chongqing? So it has something to do with their incorrect judgment.

Of course the image of the Communist Party has been damaged because it is a very high level family with such a big problem. Chinese people will have an opinion on that. Think about it:  If Gu Kailai can kill an Englishman, how easy would it be to kill a Chinese?