Watch CBSN Live

Gu Kailai, wife of powerful China politician Bo Xilai avoids execution, which surprises few

Gu Kailai stands in the Hefei City Intermediate Peoples Court
Gu Kailai stands in the Hefei City Intermediate Peoples Court in China's Anhui Province, Aug. 20, 2012. AP

(CBS News) Gu Kailai, the wife of a man who had been one of the Chinese Communist Party's rising stars, stood in court Monday and declared her suspended death sentence for the murder of a British businessman, "fair," suggesting that it "reflects the court's special respect toward the law, reality and life."

Her remarks were almost certainly scripted by court authorities - or at least pre-approved by some government official - and her gratitude at seeing her life spared by the court may have been very real. But it came as little surprise.

Contrary to her remarks, many Chinese see her sentence as a blatant example of power continuing to trump justice in the country.

"I could have told you before the trial there would be no death penalty," Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Beijing's Renmin University tells CBS News. "It is not custom for the rich and powerful in China to get the death penalty. The family's connections go way back, generations."

Gu Kailai gets suspended death sentence
Video: Gu Kailai murder trial quick and quiet
Who's who in Bo Xilai political scandal

Gu's husband Bo Xilai had been, until his wife's arrest earlier this year for the murder of Neil Heywood, one of the most promising politicians in China, billed for a top position in the powerful Politburo Standing Committee later this year. His father was also a member of the Communist Party's elite.

"Although she said the verdict respects life, the death penalty does exist in China," notes Zhang, pointing to the infamous case of Xia Junfeng, a street vendor who is awaiting the death penalty for killing two local law officers after being arrested for illegal vending. His lawyers and family insist he was being beaten severely in custody when he used a knife to defend himself, killing the two men. An appeal of his sentence was rejected.

Xia Junfeng with his family
Chinese street vendor Xia Junfeng with his family, prior to his arrest in 2009. Family photo

Xia, "killed two city administrators out of self defense but was given the death penalty rather swiftly," notes Zhang. "In contrast, Gu's crime is much more evil, but she only gets death with reprieve."

Well know Chinese columnist Lian Yue, who often weighs in on current affairs in the country to his massive following on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, suggested that Gu's crime, which was allegedly planned and executed by herself, with help from others, set the two cases apart.

"That street vendor might be guilty, but definitely not evil. He's a father, a husband. He sells snacks to feed the family," he said on Wiebo. "When vendors' rights - even their personal safety - is threatened, who's protecting them?"

Summing up the case, another user of the microblogging site said of Gu's sentence: "The trial indeed shows respect for life, her life. But what kind of people can enjoy such respect. Can Xia Junfeng enjoy that?"

This story was written by foreign editor Tucker Reals, with reporting by Shuai Zhang in the CBS News Beijing bureau.