Official Disappears Amid Defection Rumors (Updated)

Rumors are swirling in the foreign press and in both western and Chinese social media around the whereabouts of Wang Lijun, the Chongqing vice-mayor and former police chief credited with carrying out party secretary and Politburo hopeful Bo Xilai’s recent crackdown on crime and corruption. From The Guardian:

“According to information, because of long-term overwork, vice mayor Wang Lijun is highly stressed and in poor health. He is now accepting vacation-style treatment,” Chongqing’s information office posted in a message on its microblog account on Wednesday.

Statements of that kind are extremely rare in China. This one – retweeted tens of thousands of times by microblog users – came hours after large numbers of police surrounded the US consulate in Chengdu on Tuesday evening, blocking off roads around the building.

Chinese microblog users began to circulate pictures of the scene and rumours of a high-profile attempted defection. They claimed a car with what appeared to be official number plates was seen outside the building but was subsequently removed by Chinese police.

Both the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and local Chengdu officials declined to comment on the events at the consulate, but the situation reinforces recent speculation that Wang had fallen out of favor with Bo. Last week, the Chongqing government announced that it had moved Wang from his public security post to take charge of certain economic, political and other affairs. Netizens jeered at the official statement on Sina Weibo today and speculated that Wang had faced a corruption probe, according to Reuters, a situation which could potentially embarrass Bo Xilai and threaten his political aspirations:

“This will be a big blow to Bo Xilai, because Wang was instrumental in his anti-organized crime campaign, and that was instrumental in building Bo’s appeal in public opinion and even among officials,” said Chen Ziming, an independent scholar who studies party politics.

“Now the hero of that campaign has turned into a scandal, so at the least that’s a blow to Bo’s public prestige,” said Chen, a former political prisoner who lives in Beijing.

ChinaGeeks’ Charles Custer wrote that Sina has been censoring searches for “Wang Lijun” on and off today, adding later that some versions of the story claim Wang “may have divulged significant amounts of privileged information to US diplomats,” and discussed the political implications of the situation:

On the international side, the implications of a high-level official defecting or attempting to defect just before soon-to-be-president Xi Jinping makes his visit to the US could be huge. If the US were to grant Wang asylum, that would be….well, awkward probably doesn’t even begin to cover it.

On the domestic side, with China’s leadership transition fast approaching and Wang being high in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing administration, a defection or even just a rumored defection on Wang’s part could seriously damage Bo’s position. Certainly, there are forces within the Party who are very opposed to Bo’s rise, and it’s hard to think of what better ammunition they could have against him than something like this. On Twitter, @niubi theorized that Sina could be allowing some of the posts about Wang Lijun to go through on purpose to damage Bo Xilai’s reputation, and that certainly seems possible.

Assessing the likelihood that any of this (beyond the facts) is real is very difficult. On the one hand, the US generally doesn’t grant asylum from in-country embassies, precisely because those embassies are easy to surround with police. A year or so ago, I was asked by a Chinese friend to research this process, and found that generally speaking, it’s much easier to be granted political asylum if you’re outside the country you want asylum from. It strikes me that if Wang Lijun really did flee to the Chengdu embassy to request asylum, he must have been in a rather desperate situation. Otherwise, presumably, he could have waited for an opportunity to travel abroad and had a much greater chance of success.

See also previous CDT coverage of Wang Lijun’s role in Bo Xilai’s 2009 anti-corruption campaign, including reports late last year on the possibility of a new mafia movie based on Wang’s story.

Update: Shanghaiist has posted pictures from Sina Weibo of police surrounding the U.S. consulate in Chengdu last night, adding that the unsubstantiated rumors of Wang’s defection were largely spread by overseas Chinese news site Boxun. The Wednesday morning post on Chongqing’s official microblog quickly attracted a wave of comments about the “vacation-style treatment” (休假式治疗) it prescribed for Wang, according to The Wall Street Journal:

As if often the case when rumors about top officials begin to circulate, Sina’s censors went a bit schizophrenic with the Wang case. Mr. Wang’s name was blocked and then unblocked in searches on the site and appeared briefly on Sina Weibo’s list of trending topics before disappearing. Likewise, the original Chongqing government announcement of Mr. Wang’s vacation was taken down and then reposted in the early afternoon, erasing all comments that had amassed to that point.

Still, the Chinese Internet meme machine powered on. Among those rolling with the vacation theme Wednesday afternoon was the automotive section of the Chengdu Business Daily newspaper, which asked Weibo users which car they would choose if forced to take treatment similar to Mr. Wang’s.

“I’d take a Lamborghini,” responded one reader. “That way if you crash and die at least you die with face.”

The New York Times has more on the rumors surfacing about Wang’s fate:

A Chinese reporter with the newspaper Southern Metropolis said that he had learned from police sources that Mr. Wang had tried to enter the consulate, but had been arrested and that he had since been flown to Beijing for questioning. The post was later deleted from the Sina Weibo microblog.

Given the secretive nature of Chinese politics, the fact that the rumors were so widespread suggested that something was amiss. Because Chinese leaders put such a priority on presenting a united front, at least in public, the rumors are seen as hurting Mr. Bo.

“For Bo Xilai it’s not good news,” said Jin Zhong, chief editor of the China-watching magazine Kaifang in Hong Kong. “The Communist Party has always had a lot of internal factions. We don’t know what most of them are but when things like this come up to the top it shows that something is going on.”

ChinaGeeks’ Charles Custer relayed a report from the Oriental Daily News which claims that rumors of Wang’s attempt at asylum are true. He also notes that McClatchy Newspapers’ Tom Lasseter is in Chengdu and Tweeting that “there’s nothing apparently out of the ordinary in front of the Consulate.” Lasseter reported from Chengdu on Wednesday:

Interviews with shopkeepers in the area suggested the police presence there Tuesday evening might have been less overwhelming than presented by Internet reports. A clerk at a nearby drug store, who did not want her name published because it wasn’t clear what had happened, said that while there were police cars parked on the street outside the consulate, the road was not closed to traffic.

A saleswoman at a clothing shop a few doors down gave a similar account.

It wasn’t possible to verify their version of events, however.

Update 2: The cartoon below is by Hexie Farm:


Translation: The building sign says: American Consulate, Chengdu
Sign with arrow pointing left says, “Vacation-style Treatment Center”
The figure on the left (Wang Lijun) says: “Boss, my stress is too great!”
The figure on the right (Bo Xilai): “Bastard! Let the leaders escape first!

Update 3: The United States has confirmed that Wang Lijun visited the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, but did not speak to rumors that he requested asylum, according to Voice of America:

A spokeswoman for the State Department, Victoria Nuland, told reporters Wednesday that Deputy Mayor of Chongqing Wang Lijun had a scheduled meeting at the U.S. consulate in the city of Chengdu. She said the meeting probably took place Monday and that Wang left the consulate of his own volition.

She did not provide information on what the meeting was about.

“Well, I think you’re referring to reports about the vice mayor of Chongqing – right – City. So his name is Wang Lijun. Wang Lijun did request a meeting at the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu earlier this week in his capacity as vice mayor. The meeting was scheduled, our folks met with him, he did visit the consulate and he later left the consulate of his own volition. So – and obviously, we don’t talk about issues having to do with refugee status, asylum, et cetera.”

See also a video of Wednesday’s State Department Press Briefing (beginning at 3:22), in which Nuland addresses questions about Wang Lijun. China’s Vice Foreign Minister called Wang’s visit to the consulate an “isolated incident” and said it would not affect Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to the United States next week, according to Reuters. But the Sydney Morning Herald’s John Garnaut writes that several of Wang Lijun’s close associates in Dalian have also been taken into custody, according to Chongqing sources, and adds fuel to the rumor mill surrounding a potential corruption probe against Chongqing’s leadership:

Speculation was swirling last night that Mr Bo himself was a target of the central investigation, after he had unsettled senior figures in the Party, and that Mr Wang sought refuge in the US consulate after turning witness against him.

Two close political watchers, with connections with Party and military investigators respectively, speculated that the Chongqing corruption probe might involve a degree of payback from a separate probe initiated by Mr Bo’s close friend and “princeling” ally, Liu Yuan, inside the People’s Liberation Army.

On January 19 the Herald/Age first reported that General Liu Yuan had staked his career on a “do-or-die” corruption campaign.

He told officers he would pursue his investigation to the end regardless of “how high one’s position is or how powerful the background”.

The official Chongqing Daily ran a front page article heralding “Peaceful Chongqing” on Thursday, though China Media Project’s David Bandurski writes that “all is not well on Chongqing’s political scene” ahead of this year’s CCP leadership transition:

In light of the breaking Wang Lijun story, the front-page article in Chongqing Daily looks like a concerted effort — even possibly a desperate one — to burnish and defend Bo Xilai’s legacy. Chongqing’s fight against crime from 2008 to 2010 is probably the most important feather in Bo Xilai’s cap as he pushes ahead with his bid for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee.

Given Wang Lijun’s status as a crime-busting bigshot, his name nearly synonymous with Chongqing’s anti-vice campaign, questions that encircle Wang are questions that encircle Bo Xilai.

Update 4: ChinaGeeks’ Charles Custer has the latest on the censorship – or lack thereof – of certain discussions about Wang Lijun and his “vacation-style medical treatment” on Sina Weibo as of early Thursday evening:

At the moment, Wang is back on the Sina Weibo trending topics list twice. “王力军” (an intentional mistyping of his name is #2 on the trending topics list, and the phrase “vacation-style medical treatment” is #7. Searches for “Wang Lijun” (typed correctly) remain uncensored. It’s quite clear that Sina is not trying to suppress this story at all, which begs the question: is someone at Sina trying to damage Bo Xilai?

Meanwhile, Reuters reported on Thursday that any conclusions about the fate of Bo Xilai may be premature:

“I think Bo Xilai is a bit like the Chinese version of Newt Gingrich — he’s so battle-scarred that does this really add or take away from a guy who is controversial?” said Kerry Brown, head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, a London foreign policy institute, referring to the Republican aspirant to the White House.

“If he’s known for being a controversial character, I don’t think these things have a big impact,” Brown said of Bo. “It may just as well work to his advantage.”

Chinese citizens can’t vote for their leaders. But an informal poll on the city’s steep streets suggested it was too early to count out Bo, whose ill-concealed ambition and privileged background have attracted naysayers.

“From almost every perspective, Chongqing is better since Bo came,” said Wu Jun, 25, when asked about Bo, a previous mayor of Dalian, a port city in eastern China.

“Look at Dalian too. When Bo was there, they also were developing well. So there is something to the man. I think a lot of people my age like him because he seems real,” he said, adding that he wasn’t concerned about the rumors swirling around Wang.


Update 4 (Feb. 9, 1:30 PST)
:

Through a brief Xinhua dispatch, the Chinese government today acknowledged that Wang had spent time at the U.S. Consulate and said he was under investigation. From the Guardian:

The terse, one-line statement about Wang Lijun from official news agency Xinhua – issued at around 11pm Beijing time on Thursday– came one day after the announcement that he was receiving “vacation-style treatment” owing to stress.

The fall from grace of Chongqing’s vice-mayor and former police boss has triggered intense speculation of a political struggle because of his close ties to the city’s ambitious party secretary, Bo Xilai, who had been tipped for promotion when a new generation of leaders takes power this year.

Wang’s transfer to non-police duties last week led to suggestions that the two men had fallen out amid a possible corruption investigation.