Wang Lijun Trial

Wang Lijun’s 15-Year Sentence May Clear Way for China’s Leadership Transition

The sentencing of one of China’s most powerful policemen to 15 years in prison could lead to resolving the scandal over disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai and help the country move on with the pending change in its top leadership.

09.24.12 8:45 AM ET

A Chinese policeman, whose dramatic attempt to defect to the U.S. Consulate in the city of Chengdu early this year led to the downfall of a top politician, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison by a court in that city in what analysts say is a sign that China’s sensitive leadership transition is now likely to move ahead over the coming months.

Wang Lijun was jailed for “bending the law for selfish ends, defection, abuse of power, and bribe taking,” according to China’s official Xinhua news agency. The 52-year-old was police chief in the nearby city of Chongqing, China’s biggest municipality, when he fell out with his boss, Politburo member Bo Xilai, apparently over whether to disclose the involvement of Bo’s wife in the killing of British businessman Neil Heywood. (Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence last month for her role in the murder.)
Wang’s flight to the American Consulate in Chengdu, where he stayed for more than a day before handing himself over to the Chinese central government in February, was the first indication of a crisis that has badly shaken China’s political system ahead of the handover of power to a new generation of leaders (previously expected to include Bo Xilai) later this year.

One of the accusations against Wang was that he initially plotted with Gu Kailai to cover up Heywood’s murder, but then attempted to pass on details of it to her husband after Gu turned against him. Bo then “angrily rebuked him” and “boxed his ears,” according to Xinhua, leading Wang to fear for his own safety and to flee to the U.S. Consulate. Wang also was accused of misusing police surveillance equipment.

But the court’s report emphasized that Wang had cooperated with the authorities and provided useful evidence, and its verdict emphasized that he was being given a “combined”—i.e., concurrent—sentence for his various crimes.

“This is a relatively light verdict for such an array of crimes—especially when they include defection and the fact that he went to the U.S. Consulate,” says David Zweig, a specialist in Chinese politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “This suggests that Wang has been quite helpful” to investigators.

Indeed, some observers have argued that the evidence Wang provided implying that Bo Xilai sought to cover up his wife’s crime, along with the government’s decision to make this public, suggest that Bo himself could now face criminal charges. This would put an end to speculation that Bo’s powerful political backers, thought to include many conservatives within the Communist Party, might succeed in saving him from jail.

Zweig says a criminal trial could be “a risk“ for China’s current leadership: “It might really annoy the left if they make Mr. Bo a criminal,” he says, “but on the other hand, maybe if they can really prove that he did bad things, it might make it easier for them to nail him.”

Either way, observers believe that the Wang Lijun verdict now paves the way for a final decision on Bo Xilai’s future, which may at least temporarily put an end to infighting on the issue—and allow the party’s once-in-a-decade leadership handover to proceed this autumn as planned. (So far the party has yet to even announce the date for the staging of its five-yearly congress, at which Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as Communist Party secretary-general.)

But some observers say Wang’s trial leaves various key issues unresolved. While the official Global Times newspaper has described Wang’s fate as a warning to other corrupt officials that fleeing to foreign consulates will not help them escape justice, influential editor Hu Shuli says the fact that Wang had to turn to the U.S. for protection was “one of the greatest embarrassments of [China’s] current legal system.”

Wang Lijun “had no other choice but to enter the U.S. Consulate and seek asylum,” she wrote in a commentary on the website of Caixin, the magazine she edits. “When mafia members break up with their bosses, they can attempt to seek police protection,” she noted. “But in Chongqing and for the former police boss, there was nowhere to turn.”

Hu Shuli also described the willingness of other senior police officials in Chongqing to collude with Gu and Bo as “a shame”—noting that Gu’s “ability to manipulate law-enforcement agencies and command the personal loyalty of police officers demonstrated a power unmatched by any crime organization.” The case, she said, makes it “clear that the establishment of a judicial system that can make horizontal and vertical checks on power must be implemented with greater urgency than ever.”

And she also criticized Wang, who previously had been accused of riding roughshod over the legal process while implementing a crackdown on organized crime, at Bo’s request, several years ago. (Thousands of people were arrested during the two-year crackdown, many jailed, and a number executed, amid allegations of a lack of due legal process: a well-known lawyer who defended one of the accused was himself jailed, and Wang also ordered the Chongqing police to sue journalists and media organizations who criticized their work.) Hu suggested that “the magnitude of power Wang had at his disposal during the famous Chongqing ‘anti-mafia’ campaign and the cover-up of Heywood’s death was a public outrage.”

Professor Zweig says “the big question now is how willing they are to go back and look at these cases—clearly there were abuses, and they arrested a lot of people who weren’t very guilty as well as really bad criminal elements and gang members.” Some cases already are being reinvestigated, he notes—and added that Wang Lijun, a flamboyant, hands-on, self-styled “crime buster” who once inspired a popular Chinese TV series could possibly still face further charges now that this trial is over.