China’s Top Cop Goes Missing, as Officials Stay Mum and Bloggers Erupt

Chinese officials are trying to contain a scandal over the disappearance of Wang Lijun, but the blogosphere is pushing for answers. Melinda Liu reports.

02.10.12 9:45 AM ET

Rumors of a high-level defection bid in a U.S. Consulate. High-stakes Politburo tussling on the eve of a key power reshuffle. A top cop in China gone rogue—and then missing. A backdrop of corruption probes and crackdowns on the mob.

The scandal has all the makings of a Cold War spy thriller. Except this is 21st-century China, where government organs cling to a frustrating culture of opacity, even as they blog their own Orwellian version of events. In other words, nobody really knows yet what really happened to renowned crime-buster Wang Lijun, 52. Unconfirmed reports in China’s blogosphere, which has avidly followed the drama, speculate that Wang himself is under investigation for corruption. The real question is how the fracas affects China’s factional balance in light of top-level personnel changes due later this year.

Wang was dubbed the “Eliot Ness of China” for his campaign to stamp out organized crime in the brash western Chinese megalopolis of Chongqing. Among his targets was the city’s most powerful mob boss, who was put on trial and executed last year. An uncharacteristically swashbuckling cop and martial artist, Wang, whose official title was deputy mayor in charge of public security, inspired a TV series and boasted of having a movie made of his exploits, akin to The Godfather.

Meanwhile Wang’s real-life political godfather, at least until recently, was another unusually flamboyant and self-promoting personality, Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai. Known as a Chinese “princeling,” because his father was a veteran revolutionary and former vice premier, Bo has raised his profile dramatically in recent years thanks to the headline-grabbing anti-crime crackdown and his praise for the virtues of China’s communist past via so-called red songs and red tweets.

Now, as the scandal continues to unfold—was it a purge? a defection attempt? or both, with a power struggle thrown in?—both protégé cop and princeling mentor seem to be in big trouble. “The incident is a blow for Bo,” who was poised for a national leadership role, says Brookings analyst Cheng Li.

Yet, one winner is clear: China’s grassroots microbloggers have shown themselves to be more believable and far more compelling than the Chinese government bureaucracy is in general—and in particular the man who, at least up to now, was one of China’s most colorful and media-savvy politicians. Bo, 62, was an early advocate of using the Chinese version of Twitter to communicate with (and promote himself among) Chinese citizens. Now the technology Bo used to further his political agenda may be helping to thwart some of his own ambitions.

The Wang Lijun scandal erupted at a delicate moment for the Chinese regime. Top leaders are poised for a massive leadership reshuffle, beginning with the top party job, which is expected to go to Vice President Xi Jinping this autumn. Xi also is slated to take over the presidency from Hu Jintao next year. (Meanwhile Bo, already a member of the 25-member Politburo, hopes to snag a seat on the Communist Party’s all-powerful, nine-person Politburo Standing Committee, ideally wielding a key portfolio, such as propaganda.)

It also just so happens that Xi, 58, is about to embark on an important official visit to the U.S. next week, seen as a key rite of passage on his journey to the top. The circumstances of Wang’s mysterious disappearance had the potential to embarrass both sides on the eve of Xi’s trip. But Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai insisted it was “an isolated incident” that was “resolved and resolved quite smoothly.” He didn’t go into the details of exactly what happened to China’s top mafia-busting crimefighter.

For more on the story, you had to go to the Chinese blogosphere. Rumors of a purge had erupted last week after the Chongqing government said “comrade” Wang had been shifted as head of the police department to other duties that included landscape gardening and caring for historical records.

Wang was known to have entered the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu (the U.S. diplomatic facility closest to Chongqing) Tuesday for an appointment in his capacity as a Chongqing vice mayor. Then he left “of his own volition … he walked out. It was his choice,” said a U.S. State Department spokesperson who declined to comment on the issue of asylum. Accounts of an unusually heavy security presence, including roadblocks, near the consulate circulated on the Internet. So did speculation that Wang had been whisked away to detention in Beijing as part of a corruption probe.

On its official Sina Weibo microblogging account, the Chongqing government stated that, due to stress and overwork, Wang was “accepting vacation-style treatment.” Long exposed to bland euphemisms used to describe the party’s Kafka-esque means of disciplining wayward cadres, Chinese netizens gleefully pounced on the term “vacation-style treatment” and sent it viral. The term became the top-trending phrase on Weibo. Within two hours, it was reposted and commented on tens of thousands of times, usually satirically, according to this delicious WSJ.com item. Chinese censors were erratic in their efforts to block Wang’s name from searches, and even the Chongqing government’s initial statement about the super-cop’s leave of absence was taken down and then reposted, sans comments.

Even if the full impact of the Wang Lijun scandal takes time to unfold—it could take months—it's a good morality tale for Chinese mandarins who think they can effectively censor and manipulate the nation’s netizens, now numbering 500 million (greater than the total EU population). On the one hand, Beijing urges government officials and departments to use microblogging for everything from debt collecting by the water authority in Nanjing to dispelling false rumors in Yunnan. Because many citizens turn to blogs as a forum for dissent, authorities also hope to nip unrest in the bud by monitoring Internet opinion.

Last month, a senior official urged authorities to “utilize blogs better” as a way to to provide information to citizens and improve transparency. (Another Global Times piece, relating a restaurant swindle exposed in social media, was headlined “Cover Ups No Longer Work in Weibo Era.”) Yet at the same time, official censors still try to block discussion of certain sensitive topics, and authorities have redoubled efforts to compel netizens to register using their real names, making it easier to match “subversive” comments with real people. Until officials aim for genuine transparency, their minimalist and Orwellian explanations for incidents such as Wang’s disappearance are bound to be ridiculed—and citizens will increasingly turn to the wild and woolly blogosphere to try to find out what’s really going on.