So it could be Bo, but this seems unlikely – Wang’s downfall undermines one of the core elements of Bo’s political narrative, the crackdown on organized crime that was Bo’s first signature initiative in Chongqing and which has won him widespread popularity in the city. Bo brought Wang with him from China’s northeast in order to head the campaign, and Wang also reportedly coordinated Bo’s public relations effort to commemorate the campaign with a five-volume history, a big budget film and a TV series. That said, Wang is a big personality – a minor celebrity in his own right – and he’s been rumored to be unhappy about being overshadowed by his boss, so there’s a chance the incident is simply a remarkably nasty falling out.
More interesting – and more dramatic – is the chance that Wang is the victim of a plot targeting his boss. Wang’s arrest is reminiscent of the 2006 Shanghai pensions scandal, which ultimately brought down the Party chief of Shanghai after investigators had worked their way up through his subordinates. The investigation has been widely seen as masterminded by Hu’s Communist Youth League faction, which was in the process of consolidating power after taking over from Jiang Zemin’s* “Shanghai clique.” Rumors favor the same group as the driving force behind the current scandal; Bo shares a connection with incoming president Xi Jinping as a “princeling” – the son of one of the Party’s earliest leaders – and is generally seen as belonging to its more conservative faction.
But Wang hasn’t yet been formally charged or denounced – Xinhua reports that he’s on “vacation-style medical leave” after a breakdown caused by overwork. He hasn’t even been fired, although he has been reassigned to a post in charge of municipal sanitation and parks. If Wang is a vehicle to get to Bo, it seems that the standing committee hasn’t yet reached consensus on the next step.
Indeed, China’s political apparatus has clearly been taken by surprise to some extent –as of Friday there been only one, sparsely written story from Xinhua, while social media and blogs have been left free to speculate endlessly on the implications of the case. This could mean that Wang’s arrest wasn’t planned at a high a level – or that it was planned to be carried out quietly without the trip to the consulate. China Media Project has a great roundup of the domestic newspaper coverage – all nearly verbatim reprints of the Xinhua story, but ranging in play from small buried stories to headlines covering the front page.
There’s a particularly interesting (so far unsupported) rumor that draws attention to a recent trend of people in desperate situations turning to public opinion to protect themselves from local thugs, and it’s possible that Wang calculated that by making his case a national story he could ensure that he couldn’t be disappeared in secret, whether by local powers or the national Party. Personally, I’m doubtful, but it would be a spectacularly bold use of the press by a man who, like his former boss, has made a career of it.
For the time being, the wisest thing for many to admit may be that they simply don’t know for sure what’s going on. But what happens next in the Wang Lijun case is extremely important, because it may be the first sign we have of the direction China will take in the next ten years.
*We would like to apologize for the earlier spelling error of the former Chinese leader's name which some of our readers pointed out. No disrespect was intended.