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.
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.