China's Police Chief Mystery
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China's Police Chief Mystery

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The Chinese rumor mill has been in overdrive since Tuesday, when Chongqing deputy mayor and chief of police Wang Lijun was apparently taken into custody after spending the night in the American consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu. A close ally of Chongqing’s party chief, the celebrity politician Bo Xilai, Wang’s case throws sudden doubt on Bo’s efforts to join the top-ranking Politburo standing committee, and suggests that powerful forces may be gunning for the Chongqing leader.

Wang’s apparent attempt to defect is presumed to have followed a warning that he was due to be arrested (although there are other, if rather fanciful, theories – see below).

I spoke today to Richard McGregor, a former Financial Times Beijing bureau chief and author of The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers – required reading for anyone trying to understand the Chinese Communist Party.  McGregor says that Wang’s arrest is a crisis for Bo’s remarkably public campaign for promotion: “It seemed like a sure thing til last week. Normally you’d expect a very public campaign to backfire, but out of the nine members of the standing committee, about six have been to Chongqing and, by their presence, consecrated his campaign.” 

Some have seen the scandal as natural comeuppance for Bo’s unprecedented appeal for popular support – the Chinese leadership values consensus highly, and is wary of politicians building independent bases of support.

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.

It’s not even known for certain that Wang did try to defect to the United States – the U.S. State Department has so far said only that he spent about 24 hours in the consulate and “left of his own volition.” It’s widely believed that Wang is in the custody of the State Security office in Beijing, but the strongest evidence for this theory seems to be a document circulating online that claims to be a copy of ticket stubs showing he flew to Beijing with State Security Vice Minister Qiu Jin. The State Security Bureau, McGregor pointed out, is headed by Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, a conservative leader who belongs to the prime target audience for Bo's high-profile “Red campaigns” in Chongqing.

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.

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