The Reuters special report was called “The downfall of ‘China’s Jackie Kennedy.'” That video was picked up and republished by numerous news outlets such as the Chicago Tribune. “The fall of China’s ‘Jackie Kennedy'” was Rediff’s version. CBS did a remix with its report titled “China’s Jackie O” confesses to murder,” and HuffPo accompanied its story with the tweet, “China’s Jackie Kennedy, if only Jackie were accused of murder.” In the U.K., the Express went with “‘JACKIE KENNEDY OF CHINA’ FACING DEATH FOR POISONING BRITON” while the London Evening Standard chose “Slice of heart clue in trial of China’s Jackie Kennedy.” The Daily Mail‘s very Daily Mailish story was filed under the title “Bodyguard says he saved Neil Heywood and his Chinese lover from kung-fu assassin after their affair was found out.” The story noted that “Neil Heywood lived in fear after affair with ‘China’s Jackie Kennedy’ was exposed.” Proving a trend knows no language barriers, RTVE (Radiotelevisión Española) reported that “La Jackie Kennedy china confiesa haber matado al británico Neil Heywood,” while Taiwan’s Apple Daily reported on “中國賈姬” (“China Jackie”), it added an explanatory note in parenthesis, “(為美國故總統甘迺迪之妻)”–“the wife of the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy.” Even NPR repeated that Gu Kailai was “the woman dubbed China’s Jackie Kennedy.”
For those with the remotest sense of who Gu Kailai is (or was if she is executed by the time this is published), the comparison should trigger a migraine. Saying Gu Kailai is the Jackie Kennedy of China is like calling David Hasselhoff the Jacques Cousteau of America: That is, they both are famous and both used to get wet a lot. No surprise then that this lazy, infectious comparison started with an offhand comment by a single American in Colorado.
On April 11, 2012, in a piece titled “‘Jackie Kennedy’ of China focus of murder probe,” CNN reported that “Gu Kailai, the woman likened to the ‘Jackie Kennedy of China’ and now at the center of a murder investigation.” CNN has since re-used the trope, posting a pre-trial profile just last week under the title “Gu Kailai, China’s ‘Jackie Kennedy.'”
That CNN report came a day after NBC news ran a piece titled “‘Jackie Kennedy of China’ suspected in death of British businessman.”
The CNN report attributed the Kennedy comparison to a Wall Street Journal interview with a man named Ed Byrne. NBC credited a BBC story from earlier that same day.
The BBC story from April 11—”China’s ‘Jackie Kennedy’ under scrutiny”—quotes Colorado lawyer Ed Byrne as the source of the comparison, having told the BBC, “People likened her and her husband to the Jack and Jackie Kennedy of China. They were the modern liberal element there.”
Byrne, who worked with Gu the 1990s when she was in Dalian including on a lawsuit she brought in U.S. federal court on behalf of Chinese companies, had spoken to The Wall Street Journal a few days before. In an article published on April 7 titled “‘Jackie Kennedy of China’ at Center of Political Drama,” the Journal noted that, to Byrne, Gu “seemed like the ‘Jackie Kennedy of China.”
Unlike the BBC, The Wall Street Journal does not quote Byrne’s comparison in full. In either case, it was the BBC, NBC and The Wall Street Journal that condensed a statement about the couple to one simply about Gu.
Reached in his office in Denver, Edward Byrne told me that when he was in Dalian, “Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai were described to me as the Kennedy’s of China.” The comparison, he suggested, was based more on them as a couple than her individually, which is reflected by his original comment to the BBC. Byrne added that this description came from the Chinese and American people working for Gu in Dalian, and not from anyone else.
The first mention in Chinese of “中國賈姬” (“China Jackie”) is from the Apple Daily. Published days after the Journal‘s report, the Apple Daily credits both the Journal and Byrne with the comparison. On April 11, a World Journal headline read “中國賈姬變殺人犯?” (“China Jackie Charged with Murder?”) Since then, numerous Chinese media have used the term. But no record exists of it before the Journal story.*
In the context of Bo and Gu as a couple, the comparison to JFK and Jackie is still a stretch at best. It is the kind made by those whose worldview and sense of history is only an inch deep and defined only by the Kennedy’s Camalot mystique. The Bo-Gu comparison to the Kennedys is about as insightful as the original John-Jackie one to Arthur and Guinevere’s kingdom.
Through this game of journalism telephone, Gu ends up isolated as simply the Jackie Kennedy of China. It’s a bit of nonsense that has come to inform a significant number of western news reports about the trial that, as all these same reports consistently remind readers, is “the biggest upheaval in Chinese politics for 20 years” and “the biggest murder trial in recent Chinese history.”
“Jackie Kennedy of China” was a reworded assessment that sprang from one guy’s comment given to two news outlets about something he was told a decade and a half ago by people being paid by the person being compared positively to Jackie Kennedy.
In fact, Gu Kailai—the wife of one of the most powerful politicians in China, Bo Xilai—is far more the “Hillary Clinton of China” than she is Jackie Kennedy. Except, of course, Clinton never slept with and poisoned a business partner (that we know of). But then, neither did Kennedy-Onassis.
Clinton, like Gu, graduated from a top law school and broke barriers. Clinton was the first woman chair of the Legal Services Corporation and was repeatedly named one of the nation’s most influential lawyers. Gu started her own highly influential and powerful law firm in China and was the first Chinese lawyer to win a civil case in the U.S. Both married new wave man-of-the-people political titans and, attached to raising boats, both parlayed their considerable smarts into political influence. Like Clinton, both have seen their names attached to questionable business dealings. By comparison, Kennedy was a society girl with a degree in French literature who became a fashion icon during her time in the White House. Later, she conveniently married an old billionaire, then became a respected book editor known for valuing her privacy. Kailai, like Clinton, has written books about her own professional victories and experiences.
Interviewed for the Boston’s NPR affiliate program “Here & Now,” Marion E. Wynne Jr., a lawyer who worked the federal trial with Gu, said of the Journal‘s comparison, “I smiled. I liked it. I don’t know if it’s accurate but I know I liked it.” Pushed by the host if “it matches her in terms of her dress” and if Gu had “that Jackie elegance,” all Wynne could effort was, “She was sharp.”
The Gu Kailai “Jackie Kennedy of China” comparison persists because it is comfortable shorthand for understanding a very complex and unique individual from a nation the west continues to work hard to understand and yet can so far define only in the most shallow terms possible. It’s a lazy, media-friendly shortcut to please those happy to believe that it might be totally reasonable that Chinese bad guys sent ninja assassins to England. And the persistence and popularity of the “Jackie Kennedy of China” comparison proves that western media outlets, at all levels, are hardly much ahead of their readers in this regard. A perfect example of this is how CNN files its “Jackie Kennedy of China” Gu Kailai reports under the tag “Tiananmen Square,” because, why the hell not, all China’s stories look the same.
* And it’s not because “贾姬” (“Jackie”) is an unknown entity. Even as Gu was sentenced, “中国贾姬” remained an allowed term on China’s microblog Weibo and offered users a perfect chance to skirt censors. But the only “贾姬” users seemed interested in was the Gucci”经典贾姬包” or “Gucci Jacki-O handbag.” The only single mention of “China’s Jackie Kennedy” was a post using the term to describe Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
A.D. Griffith is the pseudonym of a writer who sometimes covers China. Contact him here.