They were once portrayed as China’s top crime fighters: the Communist Party leader and the police chief who fought side-by-side to break the hold that mafia triads had over the chaotic Yangtze River city of Chongqing.
Now the police chief, Wang Lijun, is awaiting sentencing after admitting to crimes of his own that include corruption, abuse of power and attempting to defect to the United States. And his confession, published Wednesday, may land his longtime boss, Bo Xilai – formerly one of the most powerful men in China – behind bars as well, after Mr. Wang implicated Mr. Bo in covering up a murder.
Any trial of Mr. Bo would only add to the swirling political drama in Beijing these days. Once the standard-bearer for the country’s nationalist left, Mr. Bo’s sensational fall from grace has already revealed deep cracks within the ruling Communist Party, which is now just weeks away from a highly sensitive transition of power. Seven of the current nine members of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo are set to retire in favour of a new generation of leaders headed by Vice-President Xi Jinping.
The handover has been years in the making, but little seems to be going according to script of late. The date for the Communist Party’s national congress (where the new Politburo lineup will be revealed) has yet to be set, fuelling talk of infighting over who the new leaders will be. A volatile territorial dispute with neighbouring Japan has sparked days of angry street demonstrations around the country, at which portraits of Mao Zedong were prominent and several protesters were photographed holding banner’s supportive of Mr. Bo. Mr. Xi also mysteriously missed a series of high-level meetings earlier this month – sending the rumour mill into overdrive – although he emerged Wednesday to greet visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Until February, it was widely believed that the charismatic Mr. Bo would be among those named to the new Standing Committee. Mr. Wang, it was assumed, would follow his boss to Beijing in some capacity.
The downfall of both men was the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, who was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room last fall. The day after the discovery, according to details of Mr. Wang’s two-day trial that were published on the official Xinhua newswire, Mr. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, told Mr. Wang that she had poisoned the Briton.
According to Xinhua, Mr. Wang initially helped Ms. Gu hide the murder, including arranging for the rapid cremation of Mr. Heywood’s body. “I told him I was a bit worried, he told me it would be fine within a week or two,” Ms. Gu is quoted as testifying.
But the Xinhua account also suggests Ms. Gu and Mr. Wang soon turned on each other. Mr. Wang decided in January to tell “the then-leading official” of the Chongqing Communist Party committee – a clear reference to Mr. Bo – that Ms. Gu was a suspect. In response, “Wang Lijun was angrily rebuked and slapped in the face by the official.”
The publication of Mr. Wang’s version of events, and the suggestion that Mr. Bo may have participated in covering up Mr. Heywood’s murder, is the first formal suggestion that Mr. Bo may himself face criminal charges. Until now, it had seemed more likely that the 63-year-old – who gained large numbers of both admirers and critics with his Maoist-style political campaigns in Chongqing – would face only internal Communist Party discipline.
“It means that Bo is about to face trial. At least the type of charge has been settled, which is the crime of concealing a murder,” said Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at Renmin University in Beijing. “The Communist Party doesn’t want to go after Bo’s politics, they’re going after him only from the criminality angle … which [is due to] the power of pro-Bo and Maoist leftists.”
After he was slapped, Mr. Wang was demoted and several of his police colleagues came under what Xinhua called “illegal investigations.” Mr. Wang began to fear for his life, and on Feb. 6 he fled to the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu.
The police boss – whom human rights groups say used torture and ignored due process during the “strike the black” anti-mafia campaign in Chongqing – told U.S. diplomats “that his personal security was threatened because of his investigation of criminal cases,” Xinhua reported. “He asked the United States to provide shelter for him and filled out an application for political asylum.”
The request was eventually denied, and the 52-year-old Mr. Wang left the consulate a day later, after receiving assurances that security personnel from Beijing, rather than men loyal to Mr. Bo, would meet him. Since that point, he has been co-operating with the investigation into the murder of Mr. Heywood, Xinhua said.
Ms. Gu confessed to the Heywood murder during her own trial last month and was given a death sentence with a two-year reprieve on Aug. 20.
The investigation has also pulled back the curtain somewhat on the muddy confluence of money, power and the law in China. Mr. Wang’s trial heard how a relative of Mr. Wang’s received two apartments in Beijing worth $500,000 from Xu Ming, a businessman close to Mr. Bo who was chairman of the massive Dalian Shide Group conglomerate until he was arrested earlier this year.
The court also heard how representatives from another company registered in the port city of Dalian – where Mr. Bo served as mayor earlier in his career – paid the rent for Mr. Wang’s villa in Chongqing in exchange for another man’s release from detention.
“I acknowledge and confess the guilt accused by the prosecuting body and show my repentance,” Mr. Wang said in his final statement at court. Though the crimes he has confessed to are serious enough to warrant the death penalty in China, the prosecution has suggested that Mr. Wang’s apology and cooperation with the investigation should merit a lighter sentencing.
“For the Party organizations, people and relatives that have cared for me, I want to say here, sincerely, ‘I’m very, very sorry, I’ve let you down,’” Mr. Wang was quoted as saying.