A Chongqing man walks into a consulate ...

2012-02-14Asia Times

BEIJING - With a simple gesture, he saved his life, cast a shadow over Vice President Xi Jinping's forthcoming trip to America and possibly set in motion the agenda for political reform in China. On February 6, Wang Lijun, Chongqing vice mayor, head of the local police, and national hero in the fight against mafia and crime, went to the US consulate in Chengdu. This is the only thing we know for sure about an unprecedented event in China's political life.

Wang was apparently seeking political asylum. However, US rules prohibit diplomatic posts from offering asylum, with asylum seekers required to apply inside the US or at border posts.

Xi's trip, on the eve of the last plenary session of the National People's Congress (NPC, the Chinese parliament) before the 18th Party Congress in October, could set the tone for future ties between US and China. Xi is expected to become party leader in October and could dominate Chinese politics for a decade.

In this period, America still seems unsure about what to do with China. Two diametric options appear to be on the table with many others in between. One is of some kind of partnership. Here, the example is Taiwan. Recent elections in Taiwan showed US willingness to collaborate with Beijing by rooting for a Taiwanese president like Ma Ying-jeou, who has worked to improve ties with the mainland.

However there can be another, confrontational side. As seen in the simmering problems between China and some of its neighbors in the South China Sea. These aspects have been stoked by the interventions of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has supported the idea that sea lines running between those disputed islands and rocks were an international issue, and sided with China's neighbors.

Thus, in a nutshell, the US could collaborate with China to shape a new global future or encircle it in some kind of new cold war. Basically, this depends on China's response, but also on what the US wants from China and the world, such as America's major plans for the future, the requests made to the US by China's neighbors, and America's plans regarding them. Xi's trip is certainly a big piece of this puzzle. It will push decisions in America - and in China, after his return home - in one direction or another. What message will he deliver to America? What message will he get from Washington? Will there be any misunderstanding in the process?

The task was already difficult enough, especially as the trip is rightly meant to address the "trust deficit" between the two countries, as Xi said before the departure or, as Kenneth Lieberthal and Stapleton Roy argued on the Washington Post on February 10 "the US and China need to show a little mutual restraint". This is something ethereal and extremely challenging, and now, because of Wang, it could be even more so.

Wang's alleged attempted flight adds a new dimension to all of this. Certainly, America would not want to compromise Xi's visit. However, given the present "trust deficit," and the uncertainties about China's and America's future intentions, Wang could be a important factor. Allegedly, Wang was at the Chengdu consulate for a whole day, with Chinese media describing him as "stranded" there.

What did he say? Most likely his conversations were recorded, and it is possible that a small or large part of it has already been divulged to Chinese counterparts. Still, it is possible that not all has or will be revealed - or at least the Chinese will believe that something could be left out. These two elements, the part given and the part reserved, could give America and Wang some leverage in the future.

By going to the consulate, Wang possibly meant to save his life. He could have become the scapegoat of the ongoing Central Disciplinary Commission investigation in Chongqing.

In 1995, Beijing's then-Vice Mayor Wang Baosen killed himself in the middle of a huge scandal that eventually brought down the capital's party chief, Chen Xitong. It is not yet clear in what circumstances Wang Baosen died or whether he was supposed to become the scapegoat for the bigger power struggle going on behind his back. At the time, as now, the stakes were very high: the leadership of then-president Jiang Zemin, recently arrived from Shanghai and still not well entrenched in Beijing's politicking, was at that time challenged by Chen.

In January 1995, China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had a stroke that put him out of the political picture, and in April of the same year, Chen Yun, virtually second in command, passed away. Deng and Chen Yun had decided Jiang's promotion - and thus their political or physical demise - created an occasion to challenge Jiang's power.

Here the political backdrop is even less clear as the game for the 18th Party Congress appears still very confused and confusing. But as the Wangs could have the same fate, so Chen Xitong's ambitions could be similar to those of Bo Xilai. Bo had been striving for a position in Beijing's political limelight since his arrival in Chongqing.

Here the resemblances end. Wang Baosen died, and this might have at least partly shielded Chen Xitong. Wang Lijun not only hasn't died but he has got himself moved to Beijing. There are reports that Wang was flown first-class to Beijing with a vice state security minister a day after he met with American diplomats.

From Beijing, Wang can tell his side of the story while possibly implicating his former master, Bo Xilai, and likely saving himself from the death penalty. It would be hard for Beijing to sentence to death someone who has become so famous.

Most importantly, Wang Lijun has set a huge precedent: if you are in the middle of a political affair and you believe you will be made the fall guy, run to the nearest US consulate and tell your side of the story. This example potentially gives the US even greater leverage over China's domestic politics.

How America decides to manage these people and the information they provide could give America a de facto front row seat to China's decision-making process. Bluntly put, it could become the case that if Beijing decides to investigate a group of officials, it should first consult with the US on how to proceed. Otherwise, China could risk a flight of people and information. For China it could become a nightmare, a total loss of independence over even the smallest issue.

Beijing could decide to stop or delay this trend by militarizing the access to the US diplomatic compounds, imposing extra checks on officials, but in the long term this is simply impossible. Procedures are already cumbersome and further complications would create further hassles to Chinese officials.

Besides, scared Chinese officials could simply confess their versions of the story to American officials in hotel rooms, restaurants, cafes, et cetera. This is only part of picture, the other part is that for example, German or Italian officials under investigation would not even dream of trying to defect to the US. The US would spurn them, and their attempts would further damage their position at home and abroad. This is because people in Germany, Italy, or the US believe the local investigation procedures and the political power struggles are fair and open.

Then the root of the Wang Lijun affair is that it brought to the surface the deep belief in China, among Chinese leaders and abroad, that Chinese power struggles are unfair, and Chinese people do not trust the system with their own lives. This situation, after this case, could create huge divisions among leaders at the central or local level - the one thing that really could help to hatch and trigger a large political upheaval in China. I have talked elsewhere about this (see Rebels quashed by New Year gift (, Jan 26, 2012), and it is interesting that the Chongqing affair seems somehow connected with the evolution in Guangdong, when the two local party chiefs, Bo Xilai in Chongqing and Wang Yang in Guangdong (Wang Yang was formerly Chongqing's party chief), were competing with each other.

The muddled situation in China could make America seem more worthy of trust, as it can protect Chinese officials from the dangers of the Chinese system. However, the consequences are not straightforward. This assessment is a huge vote of confidence for the US by Chinese officials, but it could be tricky if the US were to try to use in any way this vote of confidence. Chinese people may want to run to America, but they may not like Americans running to their country.

In theory at least, there is only one solution to stop and prevent the contagion of the Wang Lijun case: China should start to reform its system by making it fairer and more in line with those of America and the Western world. This in turn could also help to set the tone for and influence the results of Xi's visit to America.

In reality for this, China would have to deal with the heavy drag of many vested and entrenched interests in China opposing reforms. But Chinese decision makers could consider that even the partial preservation of these interests could be endangered now and in the next years by the political ingenuity of a single Chinese person vying for more power or for his own safety.

Moreover, Wang proved that it is not enough that top leaders come to an understanding about their basic interests, some kind of truce against attacking each other on whatever charges as the one that exists now in China. The truce is necessary to avoid that the unity of the leadership is broken and leaders start fighting each other possibly breaking the country as it occurred with Tiananmen in 1989. Even simple high-ranking officials, a vice minister or a director general like Wang, can break the system, and there are thousands of people at this level in China. Moreover, political immunity is impossible for them, as it could spawn unchecked corruption, but trying to persecute them will be from now on more difficult, as anybody can claim to be victim of a political persecution.

Certainly, Beijing can try to find some temporary fix, but these will be only very temporary and are likely to create even greater problems in the future. As always in history, reform is the worst enemy of larger upheavals, while being fully aware that vested interests are concerned just about their own survival, even the dragging on of present problems, even just for a few years, can create huge drawbacks.

However, there is reason for moderate optimism. The recent case of Wukan (the village protest solved by firing the former party boss and appointing the leader of the rallies), the attentive handling of the Taiwan elections, the greater attention paid to foreign ties after months of neglect (see Dai talks the talk, walks the line for Xi (, Feb 1, 2012 ), and even the fact that coverage on the Wang Lijun affair has not been totally blocked on the Chinese internet all seem to indicate China is able to stand up to the challenges. The next months will prove if this is really the case.  (2012-02-14 Asia Times)


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