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    Greater China
     Feb 14, 2012


The princeling and the police chief
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - Just when it looked like China's impending change in leadership would be an unremarkable procession of boring old men draped in dark suits, a political earthquake in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing may have canceled the orderly parade.

At the center of the controversy is - yet again - charismatic Chongqing Communist Party chief, Bo Xilai, who has made no

 
secret of his desire to jump into China's charmed circle of power - the nine-person Politburo Standing Committee - at the coming autumn's party congress.

The irrepressible Bo, 63, has revived the revolutionary songs and spirit of Mao Zedong and ridden a massive anti-crime campaign in once triad-riddled Chongqing to gain national and international attention and thereby crash his way into the battle for a seat on the Standing Committee.

Now, however, Bo's right-hand man in the war against crime and corruption in the sprawling municipality of 29 million people may have turned against his boss and spoiled his chances to join China's top decision-making body.

Last week, after rumors spread on the Internet that Chongqing Vice Mayor Wang Lijun had sought asylum in the US consulate in Sichuan province's capital city, Chengdu, located 340 kilometers northwest of Chongqing, US and Chinese officials confirmed that Wang had visited the embassy last Monday. But both sides said nothing about any bid the 52-year-old Wang may have made for asylum; nor was there any mention of "secret papers" Wang was rumored to have offered in exchange for a new home in the US.

"Our folks met with him," US State Department spokeswoman Vitoria Nuland said. "He did visit the consulate, and he later left the consulate of his own volition."

China's Foreign Ministry released this statement: "Vice Mayor Wang entered the US Consulate General on February 6, stayed there for one day and left. Authorities are investigating the case."

There have been different reports about where this investigation has led. Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, citing anonymous sources in Beijing and Chongqing, said Wang has been taken in for questioning by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which would indicate the former crime-fighter and graft-buster is now himself under investigation for corruption.

But another, unconfirmed report circulating on Chinese-language websites that was also picked up by the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy claims Wang has been seized by China's Ministry of State Security. This is plausible since China's security czar would no doubt be interested in what Wang was talking about with the Americans during his sojourn in their Chengdu consulate.

The mystery and intrigue is compounded by this week's visit to the US by China's vice president, Xi Jinping, who is expected to succeed President Hu Jintao following the 18th party congress later this year.

When Xi meets with US President Barack Obama on Valentine's Day at the White House, surely the last topic either leader wants to discuss is Wang. This puts Washington in a delicate position as it was the decision by American consulate officials to meet with Wang on Chinese soil that has stirred all the controversy and ignited the cyber gossip.

In return for asylum, did Wang offer documents that would compromise Bo - the "princeling" son of the late Bo Yibo, one of the revered Eight Elders of the party? Speculation that consular officials checked with Washington and said "no" to avoid underming Xi's trip is contradicted by US rules that prohibit diplomatic posts from offering asylum. Asylum seekers must apply inside the US or at border posts.

What does seem apparent is that neither the Americans nor the Chinese want the Wang incident to undermine Xi's visit. The topic will not even come up during the Xi-Obama meeting in Washington.

In China, however, it clearly will not go away and could very well harm Bo's campaign to become one of China's most powerful men. No matter the final outcome of the Wang ordeal, the Chongqing party chief's armor has already been badly dented. But some China watchers caution that, given Bo's strong connections to other princelings including Xi himself, the Wang case need not mark his political end as long as he can clear himself of any charges that may emerge against him.

Adding to the intrigue surrounding the story is speculation that Wang's actions are a part of a broader conspiracy to discredit Bo for his iconoclasm and leftist ideology, which have never been embraced by any of the current Standing Committee members, including Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Wang's case calls to mind the fall from power six years ago of Shanghai mayor Chen Liangyu as Chinese leaders were gearing up for the last party congress. Suddenly, the previously untouchable Chen, an ally of former President Jiang Zemin, was brought down on charges of corruption in what was seen as a victory for Hu as he maneuvered to enhance his authority ahead of the congress that would guarantee him a second term as president. Jiang's influence has never been the same since.

In the week before he wound up on the doorstep of the US consulate in Chengdu, Wang had already fallen from grace. After apparently losing favor with Bo, the vice mayor had been removed from his job as police chief and reassigned to an education and culture portfolio.

Guan Haixiang, deputy party head of Chongqing's Jiangjin district, will reportedly be the new police boss. Before taking up his position in Jiangjin, Guan, 42, spent 15 years on the central committee of the Communist Party Youth League, Hu's old stomping grounds and power base.

Following his demotion, Wang was placed on "stress leave" and told to take a prolonged holiday. Now analysts wonder whether Wang may have been driven into the arms of the Americans because he felt his life was under threat. Even if his rumored plea for asylum was rejected, Wang may have reckoned that the media spotlight brought to his case by his consulate visit would protect him from harm.

Wang's association with Bo goes back to Bo's time as governor of northeastern Liaoning province from 2001 to 2004. An ethnic Mongolian, Wang started out in 1984 as a lowly traffic policeman in a small county in Liaoning two years after leaving the People's Liberation Army. By 1993, he had risen to become deputy director of public security in the city of Tieling, leading a high-profile, anti-crime crusade that destroyed Tieling's largest triad and put behind bars corrupt city officials beholden to criminal bosses.

As governor, Bo liked what he saw and appointed Wang police chief first of Tieling and later of Jinzhou.

In 2008, after Bo was promoted to his new post of party secretary in Chongqing, he brought Wang into his administration to wage a holy war against triads there. As in Tieling, Wang's heavy-handed crackdown netted not just gangsters and their underlings but also dozens of city officials - including Wen Qiang, director of the Chongqing Municipal Judicial Bureau, who was executed in 2010 after being convicted of rape, taking bribes and shielding criminal gangs.

Overall, since Wang launched his anti-triad drive in 2009, more than 2,000 people have been detained, and Chongqing has become a notably safer place where corruption is punished rather than rewarded. Meanwhile, Bo has taken all the credit and, as a result, achieved star status and a shot at a seat on the all-powerful Standing Committee.

That lofty status has been marred by allegations that Wang's no-holds-barred approach to crime-busting paid scant attention to due process, used torture to extract confessions and jailed lawyers who dared to defend those accused.

Those troubling allegations notwithstanding, Bo aims to capitalize on his success in Chongqing and his venerated family history to win a seat at China's highest table.

Over the weekend, as he welcomed Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Chongqing, Bo appeared as relaxed, poised and supremely confident as ever. Harper offered thanks for two giant pandas that have been on loan from Chongqing to Canada for the past 10 years, and neither man betrayed any knowledge of the storm clouds gathering over Bo's political future.

As of last week, however, Bo may have become a victim of his own success, setting off an intense, if unspoken, power struggle in the run-up to the leadership shuffle.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing56@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1

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