A former gang-busting police chief with strong political ties to an up-and-coming Chinese leader in the southwestern city of Chongqing is under investigation by the ruling Communist Party after he sought political asylum in the U.S., according to media reports and documents leaked online.
Former Chongqing deputy mayor and police chief Wang Lijun, whose visit to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on Feb. 6 sparked a large police presence and widespread speculation, is now under investigation by the Party’s graft-busting division, according to a report on the cutting-edge Caixin website.
The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection probe began on Feb. 9, according to the Caixin report, which was deleted soon after posting, then reposted on the Phoenix News website.
Wang, who was formerly deputy to the city’s Communist Party chief and rising political star Bo Xilai, was removed from his key posts earlier this month.
Photographs posted online apparently showed Wang’s plane ticket to Beijing, where he reportedly traveled in the company of the deputy head of state security, Qiu Jin.
Chongqing’s provincial-ranking government said in a posting on its official microblog account on Wednesday that Wang, 52, was on sick leave, sparking widespread speculation of a political purge ahead of a key leadership transition this year.
“Due to long-term overwork, a high level of mental stress and physical exhaustion, vice-mayor Wang Lijun is currently receiving vacation-style treatment following approval,” the post said.
Wang is well-known for leading as a formidable opponent of organized crime, heading a graft crackdown that led to scores of senior officials being jailed in the city of 30 million people.
He has now been reassigned to education, environmental protection, and other areas, official media reported.
While Chongqing’s newspapers carried front-page coverage yesterday of Bo’s meeting with visiting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the official Chongqing Daily omitted to display a photograph of Bo himself, sparking further speculation that the authorities may be seeking to probe Bo through Wang.
Beijing-based media commentator Shi Binhai said the situation was highly unusual in Chinese political coverage, which is governed by strict protocols handed down by the powerful and secretive Central Propaganda Department.
The online leaks, too, suggested powerful hands at work behind the scenes, he said.
“Some people are very doubtful about this, wondering who it was that allowed this material to be leaked online in the first place,” Shi said. “What does this leak actually mean?”
He said the omission of Bo’s photo was in stark contrast to media coverage of Harper’s visit to Guangdong, where newspapers ran a photograph of Harper and Guangdong provincial Party secretary Wang Yang on the front page.
“To play it down in such a way actually … suggests the opposite,” Shi said.
“Wang Lijun was [Bo’s] right-hand man in the fight against corruption and the return to revolutionary culture.”
Bo, the “princeling” son of a revolutionary Party founder, is seeking promotion to the highest echelons of leadership in a crucial transition at the 18th Party Congress later this year.
Xiao Jiansheng, editor of the Hunan Daily News, said local media were sure to have been following direct orders in the coverage of Harper’s trip to Chongqing.
“The editor of a Party newspaper has to have approval [for everything],” Xiao said. “The Chongqing Daily is the paper of the Chongqing Party Committee.”
“Everything it prints, and the way in which it prints it, are all laid out according to strict rules,” he added.
“If the Hunan Daily printed news about a meeting of the provincial Party secretary but didn’t run a photo of him, that would be the result of a direct and concrete request sent to provincial Party committee offices.”
“There is definitely a problem with Wang Lijun,” Xiao said, adding that it was too early to tell whether Bo himself would be the target of a high-profile graft probe similar to those launched against former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong and Shanghai mayor Chen Liangyu.
“It’s still hard to say what, if anything, will happen to Bo Xilai,” he said.
‘Far from over’
China’s assistant foreign minister Cui Tiankai told reporters last week that the events of the past week or so surrounding Wang Lijun were “highly unusual and an individual case.”
However, according to Shi, the comments didn’t mean Bo was in the clear, only that the authorities were unwilling to include him publicly in the probe for the time being.
“He means that they don’t want to say that anyone else is implicated for now,” Shi said. “This affair is still far from being over.”
China’s Internet authorities have censored microblog postings and searches using both Wang and Bo’s names, but keyword searches for leaders’ names are routinely filtered.
Wang was brought in by Bo, the “princeling” son of Party elder Bo Yibo, to spearhead his campaign against organized crime.
Bo, known for his charismatic leadership style, rose to prominence as mayor of the northeastern port city of Dalian, and later became associated with the campaign to bring back revolutionary songs and Mao-era socialist morality to Chongqing.
Wang’s removal and the surrounding speculation come as Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visits the United States this week on a trip that will underscore his virtual certainty of succeeding Hu Jintao as top leader from late 2012.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.