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Last updated: February 14, 2012 10:34 am
China’s Communist party leadership is preparing for a once in a decade transition but a political storm has erupted that could upset succession plans and end one of the country’s most promising political careers.
A mafia-busting former police chief called Wang Lijun spent more than 24 hours last week in the US consulate in the city of Chengdu arguing that his life was at risk after a rift with Bo Xilai, his boss and Communist party secretary of Chongqing municipality.
While scores of armed Chinese police surrounded the consulate, Mr Wang pleaded for asylum in the US. When that was refused he tried to cut a bargain with senior officials in Beijing, according to insiders.
Mr Wang, who formally lost his role as Chongqing police chief four days earlier, claimed to have extensive evidence of crimes and corruption, these people said.
“I believe Bo’s position will certainly be hurt, his career advancement chances have been badly damaged,” said Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong. “He’s very powerful but he’s also antagonised too many people in the past.”
One Communist party member with close ties to Chinese leaders went further, describing Mr Bo as “finished” and said his numerous political enemies would use these events to “sideline” him.
Until last week’s incident, Mr Bo had been a leading candidate for a seat on the party’s nine-member politburo standing committee, the country’s highest decision-making body.
Seven of the members, including Hu Jintao, the president, and Wen Jiabao, the premier, are expected to step down at the end of the year in a carefully choreographed generational handover.
Mr Bo is a member of the 25-person politburo, from which the standing committee is selected.
Mr Wang, famous for his penchant for guns and fast cars, had been Mr Bo’s chief lieutenant and the mastermind behind a crackdown on “organised crime” in Chongqing that began in 2009. It led to the arrest of more than 1,500 businesspeople, officials and alleged crime bosses.
Many of those detained later said they had been tortured in custody before being sentenced to lengthy prison terms. A handful were executed, including Wen Qiang, the former Chongqing police chief.
Mr Wang eventually agreed to leave the consulate on Tuesday evening in the company of senior state security officers and Huang Qifan, Chongqing’s mayor, who came to collect him.
Many of the armed police and paramilitary that surrounded the consular offices had been sent 300km from Chongqing, according to insiders, who pointed out that this was a serious breach of Chinese law and protocol.
The fact that US officials were placed under virtual siege by uniformed and plain-clothes officers, some armed with automatic weapons, was particularly embarrassing for the Beijing, coming as China’s presumptive future president, Xi Jinping visits the US.
Since the incident, Mr Bo has carried on as if nothing has happened, making an official visit last week to China’s southwestern Yunnan province and meeting Stephen Harper, the visiting Canadian prime minister, in Chongqing on Saturday.
Mr Bo’s status as a well-connected princeling means that he is likely to be treated more carefully than other officials. But analysts said the apparent lack of any rebuke from Beijing was unusual and a potentially worrying sign of serious splits within the party.
“The proper procedure would suggest Bo should have been summoned to Beijing to explain the events in Chengdu but instead he was in Yunnan, touring, among other places, the headquarters of the 14th army, a military unit set up by his father,” said Victor Shih, a US academic and expert in elite Chinese politics. “It is highly irregular and somewhat disturbing that we haven’t seen a strong signal from the central government to show it is in control.”
Chinese media reported that Mr Bo visited a museum at a major military unit in Yunnan late last week. Some analysts have interpreted that as Mr Bo sending a message that he still enjoys support among the country’s military.
Rumours have circulated online that Mr Bo is planning a huge rally in Chongqing to display his support among the masses.
As news of Mr Wang’s attempted defection began to leak out on the Chinese internet last week, the government initially tried to claim that he was suffering from stress and was being given “vacation-style therapy”. It later said his trip to the consulate was under investigation.
After leaving the consulate, Mr Wang was taken to Beijing, where he is believed to be in the custody of state security and the party’s disciplinary inspection organisation.
Insiders said they believed this might have been the outcome Mr Wang was hoping for when he sought refuge in the US consulate because he is now probably in the hands of people who answer to Mr Bo’s political rivals.
Police chief turns against former mentor
Wang Lijun, the former police chief of Chongqing who tried to defect to the US last week, was often called RoboCop because of his ruthless pursuit of adversaries and his unquestioning loyalty to Bo Xilai, his political patron.
So what made him turn on Mr Bo and seek refuge in the US consulate in Chengdu?
According to people familiar with the situation, the most convincing theory is that Mr Bo’s political rivals began an investigation into Mr Wang that prompted his mentor to cut him loose.
“In Chinese we say tu si gou peng: ‘when the dog is no longer needed to hunt rabbits he is boiled for food’,” said one person with close ties to top Chinese leaders.
Chinese media have reported that a former police chief and deputy mayor in the north-eastern Chinese city of Tieling was sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption and embezzlement.
The corpse of another former Tieling deputy mayor was found floating in a canal late last year.
Mr Wang spent many years as a senior police official in Tieling and analysts believe it is likely the crackdown there is part of a campaign aimed at attacking Mr Wang – and, by extension, Mr Bo.
“This is very common in elite party political struggles in China – rivals try to dig up dirt from earlier points in people’s careers in order to take them down,” said Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong.
People familiar with the case speculate that Mr Wang sought Mr Bo’s protection when the investigation appeared to be getting close to him, but that Mr Bo rebuffed him.
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