BEIJING – A former police chief whose flight to a U.S. consulate set off China's biggest political scandal in years has been charged with crimes including defection and bribe taking, possibly indicating the turbulent affair is moving closer to a resolution before a key national leadership transition this fall.
Wednesday evening's announcement by state media of the charges against Wang Lijun did not mention Bo Xilai, his one-time boss, who has fallen from power as one of China's top leaders as a result of the scandal.
Wang, the former police chief and vice mayor of the southwestern city of Chongqing, was also charged with "bending the law for selfish ends" and abuse of power, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Wang set off the scandal by fleeing to the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu in early February after being demoted by Bo, the city's powerful Communist Party boss. Xinhua said the Chengdu City Intermediate People's Court had accepted the case, although it did not give a trial date.
During his overnight stay at the U.S. consulate, Wang expressed to the Americans his concerns about the death of British businessman Neil Heywood in Chongqing last November. That prompted the British embassy to request a new investigation, which uncovered that he had been murdered. The case resulted in Bo's dismissal in March and the conviction last month of Bo's wife Gu Kailai for poisoning Heywood, a former family associate with whom Gu had reportedly feuded about money.
Gu was given a suspended death sentence while Bo remains under investigation by the ruling party's disciplinary branch for unspecified grave violations of discipline. Three leading Chongqing police officers and a Bo family aide were also sentenced as accomplices in the murder and subsequent cover-up.
The charismatic Bo had been one of China's most prominent politicians and was considered a candidate for the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee at the upcoming Communist Party national congress, expected to be held next month.
University of Miami China expert June Teufel Dreyer said authorities might be holding back in the face of a lack of consensus or uncertainty how to proceed within such a tight time frame.
"The door's still open to prosecute Bo at a future time, and it is possible that Wang's trial will attempt to draw Bo into the murder-cover-up intrigue," Dreyer said.
"The more attention can be diverted from so high-level, and reputedly fairly popular, personage, the better," she said.
Chinese courts rarely rule in favor of the defendant, and Wang's conviction is inevitable. Xinhua left no doubt about that, saying "Prosecutors said facts related to Wang Lijun's crimes were clear; the evidence was concrete and abundant."
The attorney Wang Yuncai said Thursday she has been approved by the court to serve as Wang Lijun's defense lawyer. She said the court would decide whether the trial would be closed to the public, and that according to Chinese law that would be based on whether the case involves state secrets or personal privacy issues.
Xinhua said that according to the indictment, Wang knew that Gu was under serious suspicion of murdering Heywood, but "consciously neglected his duty and bent the law for personal gain" so Gu would not be held legally responsible.
It also said Wang "left his post without authorization and defected to the United States Consulate General in Chengdu." It is not known if he made a direct request for asylum, something U.S. diplomats say they would not have been able to grant.
Xinhua said that according to the indictment, Wang knew Gu was under serious suspicion of murdering Heywood, but "consciously neglected his duty and bent the law for personal gain" so Gu would not be held legally responsible.
It said Wang "left his post without authorization and defected to the United States Consulate General in Chengdu."
Xinhua said the abuse of power charge relates to Wang's illegal use of "technical reconnaissance measures." He is accused of taking "massive bribes in a bid to secure benefits for other individuals." No details were given for the last two charges.
Unconfirmed reports said he had cooperated closely with investigators after leaving the consulate accompanied by agents from China's main intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security.
In another sign that Bo was without support at the highest levels, one of his previous vocal backers, Zhou Yongkang, China's security chief, was quoted on the front page of the People's Daily on Thursday as praising the work down by courts in Hefei in Anhui province. A court in that city convicted Gu last month in a one-day trial.
Bo's downfall and subsequent rumors about his fate have injected uncertainty into an already secretive succession process, although any damage seems now to have been contained.
Vice President Xi Jinping remains on track to take over from President Hu Jintao at the congress, where seven of the nine members of the Standing Committee are due to step down after reaching retirement age.
Wang had been Bo's right-hand man in Chongqing, spearheading a controversial crackdown on organized crime that critics say featured torture and other violations of procedure, as well as illegal confiscation of assets and the targeting of political opponents.
The two reportedly fell out after Wang brought up Heywood's murder with Bo, who was not called as a witness or otherwise implicated in Gu's murder trial.