China charged the former police chief of Chongqing with a battery of crimes including taking bribes and abuse of power, pushing ahead with its bid to mop up a political scandal that shook the Communist Party and led to the downfall of his boss, Bo Xilai.
Wang Lijun allegedly “neglected his duty and bent the law for personal gain” to shield Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, from charges that she plotted the murder of a British businessman in November, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said. Gu was convicted last month of poisoning Neil Heywood with cyanide.
The breadth of the charges against Wang, which also include defection for his flight to a U.S. consulate in February with evidence about the murder, signal the party may be marshaling its case against Bo, once considered a candidate for the party’s top Politburo Standing Committee. Chinese leaders are seeking to move on from the scandal, the worst since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, before a once-a-decade leadership transition set for later this year.
“They could have fixed Wang simply with the case of attempted defection and being a traitor, but they’re going in for corruption, abuse of power,” said Steven Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. “That is implicating Bo Xilai.”
Wang headed Chongqing’s police force from 2009 until early February. He oversaw a crackdown on gangs that raised the profile of Bo’s “Chongqing model,” with its focus on getting tough on crime and fighting social inequality.
The campaign against organized crime, called “da hei,” or “strike black,” was accompanied by allegations of arbitrary arrests and beatings even as it boosted Bo’s profile. Chongqing police arrested 1,544 people in the two months after the offensive started in June 2009, according to Xinhua.
After he was removed as police chief, Wang fled to the U.S. Consulate in the Chinese city of Chengdu, where he told diplomats that Gu murdered Heywood, according to U.S. officials briefed on the matter. After a night with American officials that saw the consulate compound ringed by police, Wang turned himself over to government authorities.
State-run media said at the time that what’s come to be called the “Wang Lijun incident” was a “serious political event that has created an adverse influence both at home and abroad.”
“China’s judicial authority will conduct the Wang Lijun trial in accordance with the law,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing in Beijing today.
The charges against Wang were announced while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Beijing for talks. The U.S. government wasn’t told that Wang was going to be charged and learned the news from reports, U.S. officials said.
The U.S. expected Wang to be charged at some point, and it’s clear there is ferment in China tied to the leadership transition, said the officials, who asked not to be identified discussing diplomatic communications during Clinton’s visit.
Bo, 63, committed “serious violations of discipline” in the case, Xinhua reported in April. He has not been publicly charged with any crime and hasn’t been seen in public since the end of the National People’s Congress in Beijing in March. He was removed from the Politburo that same month.
Li Cheng, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said some of the charges against Wang could also be used in a case against Bo.
In a one-day trial on Aug. 9, Gu confessed to poisoning Heywood in a hotel room because she believed he posed a threat to her son as a result of a financial dispute, Xinhua reported. Gu was convicted Aug. 20 and sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve.
Before Wang went to the U.S. consulate, Bo was seen by analysts including Brookings’ Li as a top contender for membership in the Politburo Standing Committee. The panel, now with nine men, exercises supreme authority in China. Its new members will be revealed at the Communist Party Congress later this year. Prior to that, the party’s wider Central Committee is set to meet to complete details for the congress.
“The real connection here is to the upcoming Central Committee meeting,” said June Teufel Dreyer, professor at the University of Miami’s department of political science in Coral Gables, Florida. “I wonder if we’re not seeing some high level machinations between the factions here.”
Bo’s “Chongqing Model” emphasized state-led investment to ease wealth gaps between urban and rural residents. He also reintroduced songs and slogans from the era of Chairman Mao Zedong to re-instill a socialist spirit. In 2009, millions of Chongqing residents received quotes from Mao’s Little Red Book on their mobile phones.
China’s leaders have sought to portray Bo’s ouster as an aberration, not a reflection of deeper problems within the Communist Party.
“China’s development will not be hindered by these separate incidents, and the overall state of the country will not be affected,” Xinhua said in an April commentary.