Wang Lijun: Tip of the Iceberg?

Amid the rumors surfacing about the status of Chongqing vice-mayor and former police chief Wang Lijun, after locals reported a police presence outside the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and Chonqging authorities announced that Wang had accepted “vacation-style treatment” early last week, few facts have emerged in statements from both American and Chinese officials. A U.S. state department spokeswoman confirmed that Wang visited the U.S. consulate in Chengdu on Monday and that he “left on his own volition.” China’s Foreign Ministry also confirmed Wang’s consulate visit, though so far neither side has responded to speculation that China’s most famous policeman asked for asylum.

Media outlets reported that Wang flew to Beijing with the deputy head of China’s State Security Ministry on February 8, based on passenger flight details pulled from a travel website backed by China’s aviation regulator. Li Cheng of The Brookings Institution told Bloomberg that moving Wang to Beijing demonstrates the seriousness of the situation:

“This means that the top leadership is directly involved in this investigation,” Li, who analyzes Chinese elite politics, said in an e-mail. “The incident is extremely serious and we probably only see the tip of the iceberg.”

Chongqing native and U.S.-based author Xujun Eberlein pieces together a version of the incident based on “informed speculation” she gathered during a just-completed China trip:

First, Wang Lijun was not seeking asylum with the US as some have guessed. He was running away from Bo Xilai and seeking the protection of Beijing’s Party Central, and he used the US consulate as a safe house, possibly also a message relay point. He waited an entire day until the people sent from Beijing arrived, at which point he walked out of the US consulate “of his own volition,” as state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland put it.

Wang then walked into a melee between two forces waiting outside: Seventy police wagons sent by Bo Xilai, and agents of State Security sent from Beijing. The two parties scuffled and argued about who would take Wang Lijun into custody. In the end, Wang’s plan worked: he was escorted to Beijing instead of Chongqing.

So why, at such a key point in Bo Xilai’s political future, was he taking this unusual action against his right-hand man and police chief?

According to sources, Wang Lijun was involved in the “Tieling case” and is under investigation. To make a deal for himself, he informed the Party Central’s Commission for Discipline Inspection that Bo Xilai and his family had transferred money and property overseas. Bo, of course, found out about Wang’s accusations and it led to the sudden arrests of Wang’s eleven henchmen, including Wang’s driver, as well as the removal of Wang from the post of Chongqing’s police chief on February 2nd.

One Chongqing police officer tried to downplay the scandal in a phone interview with The New York Times. Still, even the tip of the iceberg indicates growing tensions within Chongqing’s political elite and presents problems for the political aspirations of local party secretary Bo Xilai, who seeks ascension to China’s Politburo Standing Committee during a leadership transition set to begin later this year. Did Bo have a falling out with Wang, and turn on his right-hand man? Or is the political assassination of Wang part of a larger plot to bring down Bo from above? The Diplomat spoke to the former Beijing bureau chief of The Financial Times, author Richard McGregor, for his take:

The scandal has come at a seriously inopportune time for Bo, McGregor says, as negotiations begin in earnest over the October leadership transition. “It’s right now that real bargaining has started for places on the standing committee, and this is the time the party works as a political machine,” he says. “If you embarrass the system, you become very vulnerable.”

If Wang’s arrest wasn’t ordered by Bo himself, McGregor says, it almost certainly came from the top: “In just about any corruption scandal in China, if somebody big topples over, it’s as much political as it is the result of forensic investigation. Bo hasn’t toppled over yet, but it’s possible that this is the start.”

But, McGregor adds, it does seem like Bo may have won the first round of this fight – he has continued his busy schedule of public appearances in Chongqing and neighboring Yunnan Province, where his speeches have included pointed (if ironic) criticism of party members more interested in inflating their own accomplishments than working on behalf of the masses – an apparent attempt to distance himself from Wang.

So who took Wang down? So far, there’s no hard evidence, and rumors have pointed to everyone from President Hu Jintao to Bo Xilai’s wife. But we can be sure it was a political decision made at a high level, McGregor says, as China’s anti-corruption agency is a Communist Party body that requires permission from an official’s superior before beginning an investigation – or someone higher up the chain.

While the Wang Lijun situation may have taken China’s political apparatus by surprise, and any conclusion about Bo’s fate may be premature, media coverage out of Chongqing on Sunday also hinted that the Chinese Communist Party may be distancing itself from Bo. Following a weekend meeting with visiting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Chongqing Daily ran a 1,500 word piece that made no mention of Bo and none of the city’s major newspapers ran a picture of the party chief with their front-page coverage. From The South China Morning Post:

Chen Ziming, a Beijing-based political analyst, said the official Chongqing media’s omission of Bo might reflect certain instructions from the central leadership about limiting publicity about him in the media after a deputy mayor, Wang Lijun, apparently sought help from the US consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan, last week.

“The Wang Lijun incident has not only made Bo lose face himself, but has also brought shame to the ruling Communist Party. The central government would certainly want to make some restrictions on media reports about Bo,” Chen said.

The absence of Bo’s image from local media in his power base set the mainland’s ever-vigilant microbloggers abuzz with speculation that Bo could be on his way out of the public limelight for good, at least in an official capacity.

Across the Taiwan Strait, a Monday China Post editorial wrote that the “melodrama” on the mainland shows “that secrecy can be more unsettling than open power struggle.” If anything, The Wall Street Journal wrote on Monday, the drama unfolding in Chongqing suggests that the transfer of political power to Xi Jinping – who begins his United States tour today – may not go as smoothly as Beijing prefers:

While analysts say Mr. Xi’s political ascent is assured, last week’s flurry of police activity on a downtown Chengdu street could indicate that the broader leadership transition has hit a bump. Some analysts speculate that Mr. Bo’s opponents aim to bring him down by going after Mr. Wang.

Beyond that, analysts say, it could indicate ideological differences over China’s political development. Mr. Bo had been promoting a Maoist revival in Chongqing, complete with red-song campaigns and revolutionary rallies. His main political rival, Wang Yang, the party chief of southern Guangdong province, has been pushing a more liberal approach that stresses the rule of law and land-rights protection.

“You’re really talking, I think, about development models, where China goes from here,” says Joseph Fewsmith, an expert on Chinese elite politics at Boston University. “This takes on much broader ideological dimensions than anything we have seen in 20 years.”

It is unclear if Mr. Xi, China’s vice president, had any role in the Chengdu incident. Nonetheless, some analysts say he is uncomfortable with Mr. Bo, whose ambitions and boisterous personality might compete with Mr. Xi’s agenda.

See also CDT’s coverage of Sina Weibo’s banned search terms, tested and uncovered by CDT staff as netizen chatter heated up in the days following news of Wang Lijun’s visit to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.