Economy, Talking Point

Fair cop?

Wang Lijun’s trial comes at a delicate time for China’s political elite

Fair cop?

“What am I charged with?”: former police boss Wang is accused of defection and corruption

In the 1987 Paul Verhoeven movie Robocop there is a scene in which the crime fighter tries to arrest a corrupt executive at OCP, the company that constructed him. The attempt fails because a secret protocol built into Robocop’s software prevents him from arresting senior personnel at the all-powerful corporation. But this being Hollywood, justice prevails. Robocop later convinces OCP’s chairman that his underling is a villain. The rogue executive is then sacked, meaning he’s no longer protected by the secret protocol. Cue the (brutally) happy ending as Robocop guns down the corporate crook, who plunges through a window to his death.

Are there any parallels between the American film and the real life drama of Wang Lijun, the man once nicknamed China’s Robocop? After all, both fought organised crime rings. Both then had run-ins with corrupt bosses. And just as Robocop went for redress to the company chairman, so too Wang seems to have realised that he needed to bypass his own boss, although in this case it meant going to the top of the political hierarchy in Beijing. In both cases the outcome is the same too: the rogue element ends up fired. But there are some key differences too. For a start, a happy ending is looking a less likely outcome for the former Chongqing police chief.

What’s happened?

Last week Wang was charged by a court in Chengdu with bending the laws for selfish ends, defection, abuse of power and bribe-taking, reports Xinhua. He’s been detained since February and looks likely to receive a heavy sentence.

This is quite a fall from grace for a man we first profiled in WiC129. Last year Wang’s career looked to be blossoming. After arresting 1,500 gang bosses in Chongqing, he’d been promoted to deputy mayor and there was even talk about a Godfather-style biopic being made about China’s most famous cop.

All that publicity brought danger with it and last November we predicted that the loquacious policeman would have to navigate the political depths with care, having becoming the right-hand man and fixer of Bo Xilai, the Party boss of the Chongqing municipality. The high-profile Bo had become a controversial figure and was making a lot of enemies.

Wang was not oblivious to the risks. Allegedly he told friends that he was like a piece of gum, and that once his political masters got bored chewing him, they’d spit him out. He forecast he’d end up flattened, under a heavyweight shoe.

And indeed things began to unravel for Wang last summer. He and his boss Bo – to whom he’d been a loyal stalwart – had a penchant for tapping the phones of dignitaries visiting Chongqing. Beijing got wind that they’d tapped a call made from Chongqing to President Hu Jintao himself. This proved Wang’s undoing, the New York Times has reported.

With Wang under top-level scrutiny, he sensed that Bo – who was determined to win a place on China’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee – might not protect him. So he began to prepare a defensive position. Fortunately he had ammunition ­­– Wang was a man who knew (literally) where the bodies were buried. In fact, he’d gathered evidence that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered British businessman Nick Heywood over a commercial deal that had gone wrong. When he confronted Bo with this revelation their relationship soured.

At this point Wang looks to have concluded that his position in Bo’s Chongqing empire was no longer tenable. Perhaps fearing that he’d suffer a similar fate to Heywood – also said to be blackmailing the Bo clan – Wang outflanked his boss with a surprise move. In February he made a dash to the US consulate in nearby Chengdu. This soon become international news and Wang left the consulate voluntarily to be taken into custody in Beijing. There, he was then able to trade information with the Party’s internal investigators about his former boss. Bo was sacked in April, and has been in detention ever since.

What sort of sentence will Wang face?

The list of charges is fairly long. The allegation of ‘defection’ pertains to Wang’s short sojourn in the US consulate. Although it sounds like a Soviet era term, it is still a criminal offence in China. According to the Wenhui Daily if an official leaves his post for ‘foreign territory’, he is deemed to be endangering national security. For the defection charge alone, Wang is likely to face a stiff sentence.

As to his sentence, it remains to be seen what sort of deal Wang might have cut for providing the information required to bring down Bo.

To an outsider, Wang’s crimes may look less murderous than those of Bo’s wife – and she got a suspended death sentence last month for admitting to Heywood’s killing. That means that the severity of his sentence will be eagerly watched and on Sina Weibo it has already provoked much discussion (subsequently deleted by censors, of course).

There’s also a wider debate about Wang himself. Some still consider him a crime-fighting hero, while others think China’s Robocop is getting a taste of his own medicine. After all, when Wang waged war on the gangsters of Chongqing, legal scholars were uncomfortable with some of his methods. The complaint was that the approach seemed like summary justice, with rapid-fire convictions and executions. For advocates of the rule of law, it looked similar to some of the practices employed during the Cultural Revolution.

A case of come-uppance, then? The Global Times has offered an interesting verdict of its own. “The Wang Lijun case is very bizarre,” it admitted in an editorial. “But it validates the common belief that what goes around, comes around. This is not a fable, but something that is increasingly true in a country with a continuously improving legal system.”

A very political year…

The elephant in the room remains Bo himself. He continues to be a hugely sensitive political figure, from irreproachably revolutionary stock (his father Bo Yibo was a Party founders and one of the so-called Eight Immortals). But now the reputational context looks very different. There is a huge danger that punishing Bo publicly for corruption and misuse of power will reflect badly on the Party itself. It could also prove divisive: after all, leftist factions among the political elite viewed Bo as a figurehead.

Complicating matters further is the timing. Next month the Party Congress is expected to meet to name China’s new leaders – a once-in-a-decade event. Also closely watched: which factions succeed in getting their candidates onto the powerful Politburo Standing Committee that Bo once aspired to join.

In fact, there are rumours that this influential body will be reduced from nine to seven members, and that – accordingly – jockeying for position has been particularly intense. That makes it look more than likely that a verdict on Bo (or a trial date) will be shelved until the leadership transition process looks more settled.

As WiC pointed out last June (see issue 113) this year was always likely to be a very political one. We also suggested in WiC131 that corruption cases would be prevalent in 2012 as a stratagem for factions to purge rivals. For outsiders, that makes for a complex picture in which even the better-informed can struggle to understand what is going on. But there is evidently a tussle underway between those who group around Hu Jintao and those still loyal to former leader Jiang Zemin. Likewise there is jostling for position between a princeling faction, a coalition of more reform-minded types, and a residue of more traditional leftists. It’s hard to fathom which has the upper hand and who will ally with who. All that’s clear is there is no united front.

A decade ago these struggles were kept from public view. Today, they are harder to keep hidden. Bo’s fall is one example. Last week there was another instance, with the publication of an inflammatory analysis of the current leaders in a weekly Party publication called Study Times. Entitled The Political Legacy of Hu and Wen, the piece was soon deleted from the magazine’s website, but not before many had read its unprecedented critique of the policies pursued by the current president and his premier.

The article outlined nine failures of the current government, among them rising pollution, incomplete rule of law, growing income inequality and the creation of a society that puts profits before moral standards. Perhaps most acutely, it characterised the past decade as one of lassitude and drift in which “highly anticipated political reform and democratisation falls short of the public’s expectations”.

That may sound like a familiar critique, as well as one often made in the international press. Similarly, it sounds like pretty standard fare for campaign season – the Chinese equivalent to Mitt Romney’s current campaign question of ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’.

But the article is highly unusual by Chinese media standards (and especially from a Party newspaper). The insinuation is that the current leadership has stored up problems for its successors and that – with the necessary reforms largely put off – the risks of social instability in China are greater today than they were in 2002.

It touched a raw nerve too. A speech from Premier Wen to the World Economic Forum’s event in Tianjin this week read like an attempted rebuttal of these criticisms. “His tone was defensive at times as he laid out his legacy, steering an economy that has grown from the world’s sixth largest when he took office to the second largest today,” the Financial Times has reported. And Wen also highlighted the creation of 100 million jobs as testimony to his administration’s success, as well as an increased urbanisation rate and the raising of per capita GDP from $1,000 to $5,432.

But as an academic adviser to the regime told the FT anonymously: “His has basically been a caretaker government… the next government will face the consequences of their mistakes in the form of an economic crisis and large-scale social unrest.”

This week the UK’s Daily Telegraph touched on a similar theme, quoting a comment from the Brookings Institution’s Li Cheng that the Bo scandal was a “hornet’s nest” that had created the “worst legitimacy crisis” in the Party’s history.

Li even claimed that “all the top officials are trying to get their money out of the country”.

Such a febrile atmosphere explains some of the frenzied media attention aroused by Xi Jinping’s disappearance from the public eye since September 1. The absence of China’s leader-in-waiting has sparked widespread comment internationally, after he cancelled a series of meetings, including one with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state.

Conspiracy theories are now flourishing of heart attacks, back injuries and backroom politicking. But CNN is similar to many foreign news outlets in reckoning that Xi’s sudden withdrawal from the public eye adds “new uncertainty to the succession plan for the normally secretive Communist leadership”.

In short, what started out with Wang Lijun’s dash to the US consulate in February has rapidly developed into the most politically-charged atmosphere in China for more than two decades.

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