BEIJING – A trial next week for a flamboyant former police chief marks the latest step by China's leadership to contain the fallout from a messy political scandal that disgraced a senior politician and complicated an unexpectedly bumpy handover of power to new leaders.
The Intermediate Court in the Chengdu announced Friday that Wang Lijun would stand trial Tuesday for defection, bribery and other charges. A police chief who was unusually fond of publicity, Wang was a longtime aide to prominent up-and-coming leader Bo Xilai. Wang's unexpected flight to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu in February set off the scandal that led to Bo being suspended from the Communist Party Politburo and his wife being convicted last month of murdering a British businessman.
Dealing with the fates of Wang, Bo and his wife has consumed the leadership's attention when it had hoped to concentrate on preparing for a handover of power to a younger generation of leaders at the party congress this fall — an event that always occasions tricky backroom politicking.
Though no dates have been announced, the congress is widely expected to be in the latter half of October. But the scheduling seemed to suffer another complication when the next top leader, Vice President Xi Jinping, suddenly dropped from public view this month and remained unaccounted for Friday for the 13th day. The government has refused to comment.
Xi's absence has reportedly prevented senior leaders from holding a Politburo meeting that will set the dates for the congress and confirm the agenda for a larger meeting that will announce the party's verdict on Bo, once the popular head of the inland city of Chongqing and a contender for a leadership spot.
With so much unsettled, the leadership appears determined to characterize Wang's case as one of individual wrongdoing rather than symptomatic of divisive infighting within the party.
"They would certainly keep this as an individual case with no implications for Bo Xilai and therefore no implications for party factional struggles and so on," said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong.
Wang worked with Bo, first in a northeastern province and in Chongqing where Bo made Wang police chief. The two staged a crackdown on organized crime that grabbed headlines and made them both national figures but that later was criticized for trampling on civil liberties.
For still unexplained reasons, the two men had a falling out early this this year, and after Bo removed him as police chief, Wang fled to the U.S. Consulate in nearby Chengdu.
During a 33-hour stay, Wang told U.S. diplomats that he suspected that British businessman Neil Heywood, a business associate of the Bo family, had been murdered in November in Chongqing and that he had evidence to prove it. Though it's unclear if Wang sought asylum, his indictment charges him with doing so. But U.S. diplomats explained to him that under U.S. policy, American embassies and consulates may not grant asylum.
In the meantime, Bo had sent a phalanx of officials to surround the consulate and retrieve Wang. Wang only left the consulate after negotiating his own handover to a vice minister of state security who came from Beijing to retrieve him.
U.S. diplomats informed the British government about Wang's allegations, prompting London to request a new investigation and forcing the Chinese leadership to dealing publicly with affairs it usually prefers to handle in secret.
At her trial last month, Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence for murdering Heywood over business disputes in which the Briton allegedly threatened her son. Three leading Chongqing police officers and a Bo family aide were also sentenced as accomplices in the murder and subsequent cover-up.
Wang has been charged with defection, bribe-taking, "bending the law for selfish ends" and abuse of power. In announcing his indictment last week, the official Xinhua News Agency said 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 responsible.
Wang's hearing is supposed to be open, but as with Gu's trial it is likely to be closely orchestrated, with selected participants and media access restricted to only the main government news outlets.
"The Chongqing incident is being settled politically," said Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent rights lawyer. "All the trials are fake judgments that are have been made with political intervention."
Bo was not mentioned in official versions of Gu's trial or Wang's indictment. Some political analysts say those omissions are signs that Bo — who as a son of a revolutionary veteran is believed to retain some influence — will be spared a criminal prosecution.
Cheng, the analyst in Hong Kong, said he believed internal leadership negotiations have resulted in a decision in which Bo will give up his political ambitions for a more lenient penalty over the scandal.
"It's a kind of bargaining within the leadership concerning the leadership succession process," Cheng said. "He's out, but he will get off very lightly."
Associated Press researcher Flora Ji contributed to this report.
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