CHENGDU, China (Reuters) – A former police chief who revealed China’s biggest political scandal in two decades has gone on trial charged with attempting to defect to the United States, media reports said, in a hearing that could send shivers through China’s leadership transition.
Wang Lijun, ex-police chief of southwestern Chongqing municipality, lifted the lid on the scandal in February when he went to a U.S. consulate and, according to sources, told envoys there about a murder that would later bring down one of the nation’s most senior and ambitious politicians, Bo Xilai.
Within two months of Wang’s 24-hour visit to the consulate, Bo was sacked as party boss and from the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo and Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was accused of poisoning a British businessman. Gu has since been given a suspended death sentence for the killing in late 2011.
The trial, which will also hear charges of bribe-taking and illegal surveillance against Wang, was officially set to open in Chengdu later on Tuesday, but British newspaper The Telegraph said a secret session had already been held on Monday to deal with sensitive matters involving state secrets.
The Telegraph quoted Wang Yuncai, which it identified as Wang’s lawyer, as saying the Monday session “was about the two charges of defection and bending the law for his own ends”.
Officials in Chengdu — the city where Wang staged his dramatic flight to the U.S. consulate — said they had no information on the trial, and court officials did not answer phone calls. Wang’s lawyer could also not be reached.
China experts say the charge of attempting to defect is tantamount to treason and could lead to Wang’s execution, though some of them expect him to be given a lengthy jail term instead because he is said to have cooperated with investigators.
Tuesday’s session, expected to be closed to all but official media, will be closely watched for any evidence that Bo had ordered Wang to cover up his wife’s involvement in the murder — a sign that Bo himself could be next to face trial. So far, Bo has only been accused of breaching internal party discipline.
“Treason is a very serious charge,” said Cheng Li, a China expert with the Brookings Institution, a thinktank in Washington. “So it will probably be somewhere between 15 years to the same verdict for Gu Kailai — the death penalty, but commuted to suspended capital punishment.”
The Bo scandal has rocked Beijing, exposing rifts within the party — elements of which are strong supporters of Bo’s populist, left-leaning policies — at a time when China is preparing for a once-in-a-decade leadership change.
Bo had been considered a strong candidate for the next top leadership team, which is expected to be unveiled at the party’s 18th congress next month. Vice President Xi Jinping is seen as all but certain to take over as party chief and inherit the challenge of trying to heal internal wounds.
Xi would then succeed Hu Jintao as president in March.
There is speculation the Bo affair could also be delaying the announcement of dates of the congress which remain a mystery despite widespread expectations that it will convene in mid-October. For the previous three congresses, which are held every five years, the date has been announced by late August.
MAVERICK POLICE CHIEF
Wang, 52, has been a close confidante of Bo and, according to the official case, and he originally agreed to cover up Gu’s involvement before reversing course, fleeing to the Americans and lifting the lid on the alleged cover-up. It is not clear what happened in the consulate, but he eventually left the U.S. mission into the custody of Chinese authorities.
Wang was a self-promoter who was hailed by some for his anti-crime efforts in Chongqing, and he was the inspiration for a television series. Others saw him as having too much law-enforcement power and being over-enthusiastic in wielding it.
He was also eccentric: sources said he sometimes did his own post mortems, boasted of being an FBI agent under an exchange programme and of once being kidnapped by the Italian mafia.
In Chengdu, people on the street gave differing opinions on the trial, with some reflecting suspicions that it is more about politics than justice.
“It’s a big deal,” said Xu Yonghe, 59, an artificial rainfall engineer. “I think it’s all a political struggle.”
But one young man, who would only give his age, 23, said he saw Wang’s trial as a moment for China to show that it was assertive in fighting crime at high levels. “It could be a chance for China to take a new direction,” he said.
The trial hearing is scheduled to be finished by the end of Tuesday, with a formal verdict expected within about 10 days. Almost all criminal cases that go to trial in China end with a guilty verdict.
(Reporting by Terril Yue Jones; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Paul Tait)