Wang Lijun, Cop Who Set Off Chinese Political Scandal, Faces Trial

Though a conviction is a near certainty, it remains to be seen how harsh Wang's punishment will be, or what light he may shed on this epic political scandal

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A policeman stands guard outside a court building in the Chinese city of Chengdu, where Wang Lijun, former Chongqing police chief, went on trial, on Sept. 18, 2012

Wang Lijun was once China’s top cop, labeled a hero by the state media for leading the country’s most high-profile crackdown on organized crime in decades. But he suffered a spectacular downfall after he fled to a U.S. consulate in February, where he spent a day spilling details about his boss, the ambitious political leader Bo Xilai. Upon leaving the consulate in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, Wang was detained by state security. He hasn’t been seen until today, when state television showed him in a Chengdu courtroom, wearing a white short-sleeved, button-down shirt and black rimmed glasses, as prosecutors presented their case against him.

Wang, 52, was charged with defection, abuse of power and accepting bribes. The official Xinhua news agency said Wang “voluntarily gave himself up after committing the crime of defection, and truthfully supplied the main facts of the crime.” The verdict will be announced at a later date, and he will almost certainly be convicted. The Chinese Communist Party leadership will have predetermined the outcome of such a high-profile case, legal and political experts say. All that remains to be seen is how harsh a punishment he will receive, and what light he will shed on China’s biggest political scandal in recent memory.

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Wang’s flight to the U.S. consulate helped topple Bo, who until then had been considered a leading candidate for elevation to the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top ruling body, when it is reconfigured later this year. Wang exposed the murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman who had worked with the Bo family for several years, by Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai. Gu was convicted last month of poisoning Heywood in November over a business dispute. She was given a suspended death sentence, meaning she is likely to escape execution.

Prosecutors say that Gu informed Wang in advance of her intention to kill Heywood, and his failure to act makes him liable of “bending the law for personal benefit,” which Xinhua called an “exceptionally serious” allegation. That charge, along with accepting bribes, was heard Tuesday at the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court, which was nominally open although foreign media weren’t allowed to attend. Wang’s trial began Monday with a closed-door hearing on the counts of defection and abuse of power, Xinhua reported. That segment of the trial was closed to protect state secrets — one of the allegations is that Wang engaged in illegal wiretapping of Chinese leaders and the defection charge involves providing classified information to the U.S.

The indictment against him sought to distance the wiretapping allegations from Wang’s former boss, Bo, suggesting that he ignored or forged orders. But it’s unlikely that Bo didn’t know, says Steve Yui-sang Tsang, a China expert at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. “The bugging of other senior leaders could not happen without Bo Xilai knowing or approving in advance,” Tsang says. “The idea a local police chief bugging Hu Jintao on his own goes beyond what is credible.”

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Wang rose to prominence as tough and eccentric crime fighter. He made a reputation battling organized crime in northeast China; later, after Bo was made party boss of the southwestern city of Chongqing in 2007, he invited Wang to join his administration. Wang was later made vice mayor and public-security boss, and he led a widespread crackdown on organized crime that earned him and Bo widespread attention in China. Thousands were arrested and 13 executed including Wen Qiang, formerly deputy head of public security and chief of the city’s judicial bureau. The campaign won locals’ support but was marred by severe abuses of power and due process, including the torture of defendants.

Wang is likely to escape the fate of Wen, whom he had personally arrested at the height of the 2009–10 crackdown. Prosecutors noted that he cooperated after his arrest, which could help lessen his punishment. “He had produced important clues for exposing serious offences committed by others and played a key part in the investigation of these cases. This can be considered as performing major meritorious services,” Xinhua said. Wang was accused of accepting $475,000 in bribes, a small amount by the standards of official corruption in China.

Bo went unmentioned in the initial state media coverage after Wang’s trial concluded Tuesday. Likewise he was little discussed at his wife’s trial, and she escaped charges of corruption that may have implicated him as well. He was accused of a “serious violation of discipline,” Xinhua said in April, and removed from his posts in March and April. He hasn’t been seen in public since, and no charges have been announced.

(MORE: How Bo Xilai’s Fall Will Affect China’s Leadership Transition)

Alice Miller, a China scholar and research fellow at the Hoover Institution, argues that the removal of Bo, whose tendency for showmanship clashed with the consensus-oriented style of leadership under President Hu and his predecessor Jiang Zemin, likely strengthens preparations for the upcoming 18th Communist Party Congress. Despite the dramatic details of the Bo saga, it is not without precedent. Chen Xitong, the party chief of Beijing, was removed in 1995, and Chen Liangyu, the Shanghai party boss, was ousted in 2006, albeit for the more straightforward charges of corruption (the two are not related). Both were investigated by party authorities before being handed over to the judicial system. If the pattern follows, then the Bo Xilai saga still has one last major trial to go — his own.

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