Chongqing man walks into a consulate
... By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - With a simple gesture, he saved
his life, cast a shadow over Vice President Xi
Jinping's forthcoming trip to America and possibly
set in motion the agenda for political reform in
China. On February 6, Wang Lijun, Chongqing vice
mayor, head of the local police, and national hero
in the fight against mafia and crime, went to the
US consulate in Chengdu. This is the only thing we
know for sure about an unprecedented event in
China's political life.
apparently seeking political asylum. However, US
rules prohibit diplomatic posts from offering
asylum, with asylum
seekers required to apply
inside the US or at border posts.
trip, on the eve of the last plenary session of
the National People's Congress (NPC, the Chinese
parliament) before the 18th Party Congress in
October, could set the tone for future ties
between US and China. Xi is expected to become
party leader in October and could dominate Chinese
politics for a decade.
In this period,
America still seems unsure about what to do with
China. Two diametric options appear to be on the
table with many others in between. One is of some
kind of partnership. Here, the example is Taiwan.
Recent elections in Taiwan showed US willingness
to collaborate with Beijing by rooting for a
Taiwanese president like Ma Ying-jeou, who has
worked to improve ties with the mainland.
However there can be another,
confrontational side. As seen in the simmering
problems between China and some of its neighbors
in the South China Sea. These aspects have been
stoked by the interventions of US Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton, who has supported the idea
that sea lines running between those disputed
islands and rocks were an international issue, and
sided with China's neighbors.
Thus, in a
nutshell, the US could collaborate with China to
shape a new global future or encircle it in some
kind of new cold war. Basically, this depends on
China's response, but also on what the US wants
from China and the world, such as America's major
plans for the future, the requests made to the US
by China's neighbors, and America's plans
regarding them. Xi's trip is certainly a big piece
of this puzzle. It will push decisions in America
- and in China, after his return home - in one
direction or another. What message will he deliver
to America? What message will he get from
Washington? Will there be any misunderstanding in
The task was already
difficult enough, especially as the trip is
rightly meant to address the "trust deficit"
between the two countries, as Xi said before the
departure or, as Kenneth Lieberthal and Stapleton
Roy argued on the Washington Post on February 10
"the US and China need to show a little mutual
restraint". This is something ethereal and
extremely challenging, and now, because of Wang,
it could be even more so.
attempted flight adds a new dimension to all of
this. Certainly, America would not want to
compromise Xi's visit. However, given the present
"trust deficit," and the uncertainties about
China's and America's future intentions, Wang
could be a important factor. Allegedly, Wang was
at the Chengdu consulate for a whole day, with
Chinese media describing him as "stranded" there.
What did he say? Most likely his
conversations were recorded, and it is possible
that a small or large part of it has already been
divulged to Chinese counterparts. Still, it is
possible that not all has or will be revealed - or
at least the Chinese will believe that something
could be left out. These two elements, the part
given and the part reserved, could give America
and Wang some leverage in the future.
going to the consulate, Wang possibly meant to
save his life. He could have become the scapegoat
of the ongoing Central Disciplinary Commission
investigation in Chongqing.
Beijing's then-Vice Mayor Wang Baosen killed
himself in the middle of a huge scandal that
eventually brought down the capital's party chief,
Chen Xitong. It is not yet clear in what
circumstances Wang Baosen died or whether he was
supposed to become the scapegoat for the bigger
power struggle going on behind his back. At the
time, as now, the stakes were very high: the
leadership of then-president Jiang Zemin, recently
arrived from Shanghai and still not well
entrenched in Beijing's politicking, was at that
time challenged by Chen.
In January 1995,
China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had a
stroke that put him out of the political picture,
and in April of the same year, Chen Yun, virtually
second in command, passed away. Deng and Chen Yun
had decided Jiang's promotion - and thus their
political or physical demise - created an occasion
to challenge Jiang's power.
political backdrop is even less clear as the game
for the 18th Party Congress appears still very
confused and confusing. But as the Wangs could
have the same fate, so Chen Xitong's ambitions
could be similar to those of Bo Xilai. Bo had been
striving for a position in Beijing's political
limelight since his arrival in Chongqing.
Here the resemblances end. Wang Baosen
died, and this might have at least partly shielded
Chen Xitong. Wang Lijun not only hasn't died but
he has got himself moved to Beijing. There are
reports that Wang was flown first-class to Beijing
with a vice state security minister a day after he
met with American diplomats.
Wang can tell his side of the story while possibly
implicating his former master, Bo Xilai, and
likely saving himself from the death penalty. It
would be hard for Beijing to sentence to death
someone who has become so famous.
importantly, Wang Lijun has set a huge precedent:
if you are in the middle of a political affair and
you believe you will be made the fall guy, run to
the nearest US consulate and tell your side of the
story. This example potentially gives the US even
greater leverage over China's domestic politics.
How America decides to manage these people
and the information they provide could give
America a de facto front row seat to China's
decision-making process. Bluntly put, it could
become the case that if Beijing decides to
investigate a group of officials, it should first
consult with the US on how to proceed. Otherwise,
China could risk a flight of people and
information. For China it could become a
nightmare, a total loss of independence over even
the smallest issue.
Beijing could decide
to stop or delay this trend by militarizing the
access to the US diplomatic compounds, imposing
extra checks on officials, but in the long term
this is simply impossible. Procedures are already
cumbersome and further complications would create
further hassles to Chinese officials.
Besides, scared Chinese officials could
simply confess their versions of the story to
American officials in hotel rooms, restaurants,
cafes, et cetera. This is only part of picture,
the other part is that for example, German or
Italian officials under investigation would not
even dream of trying to defect to the US. The US
would spurn them, and their attempts would further
damage their position at home and abroad. This is
because people in Germany, Italy, or the US
believe the local investigation procedures and the
political power struggles are fair and open.
Then the root of the Wang Lijun affair is
that it brought to the surface the deep belief in
China, among Chinese leaders and abroad, that
Chinese power struggles are unfair, and Chinese
people do not trust the system with their own
lives. This situation, after this case, could
create huge divisions among leaders at the central
or local level - the one thing that really could
help to hatch and trigger a large political
upheaval in China. I have talked elsewhere about
this (see Rebels
quashed by New Year gift, Jan 26, 2012), and
it is interesting that the Chongqing affair seems
somehow connected with the evolution in Guangdong,
when the two local party chiefs, Bo Xilai in
Chongqing and Wang Yang in Guangdong (Wang Yang
was formerly Chongqing's party chief), were
competing with each other.
situation in China could make America seem more
worthy of trust, as it can protect Chinese
officials from the dangers of the Chinese system.
However, the consequences are not straightforward.
This assessment is a huge vote of confidence for
the US by Chinese officials, but it could be
tricky if the US were to try to use in any way
this vote of confidence. Chinese people may want
to run to America, but they may not like Americans
running to their country.
In theory at
least, there is only one solution to stop and
prevent the contagion of the Wang Lijun case:
China should start to reform its system by making
it fairer and more in line with those of America
and the Western world. This in turn could also
help to set the tone for and influence the results
of Xi's visit to America.
In reality for
this, China would have to deal with the heavy drag
of many vested and entrenched interests in China
opposing reforms. But Chinese decision makers
could consider that even the partial preservation
of these interests could be endangered now and in
the next years by the political ingenuity of a
single Chinese person vying for more power or for
his own safety.
Moreover, Wang proved that
it is not enough that top leaders come to an
understanding about their basic interests, some
kind of truce against attacking each other on
whatever charges as the one that exists now in
China. The truce is necessary to avoid that the
unity of the leadership is broken and leaders
start fighting each other possibly breaking the
country as it occurred with Tiananmen in 1989.
Even simple high-ranking officials, a vice
minister or a director general like Wang, can
break the system, and there are thousands of
people at this level in China. Moreover, political
immunity is impossible for them, as it could spawn
unchecked corruption, but trying to persecute them
will be from now on more difficult, as anybody can
claim to be victim of a political persecution.
Certainly, Beijing can try to find some
temporary fix, but these will be only very
temporary and are likely to create even greater
problems in the future. As always in history,
reform is the worst enemy of larger upheavals,
while being fully aware that vested interests are
concerned just about their own survival, even the
dragging on of present problems, even just for a
few years, can create huge drawbacks.
However, there is reason for moderate
optimism. The recent case of Wukan (the village
protest solved by firing the former party boss and
appointing the leader of the rallies), the
attentive handling of the Taiwan elections, the
greater attention paid to foreign ties after
months of neglect (see Dai
talks the talk, walks the line for Xi, Feb 1,
2012 ), and even the fact that coverage on the
Wang Lijun affair has not been totally blocked on
the Chinese internet all seem to indicate China is
able to stand up to the challenges. The next
months will prove if this is really the case.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist
for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org