The failed defection of a high-ranking Chinese police official is shining a light on a power struggle at the highest levels of China’s communist system—and bringing to the fore a debate among U.S. intelligence officials as to what is really happening in the People’s Republic of China.
The dramatic events of Feb. 6 at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, in southern China, involved a rejected asylum appeal by Wang Lijun, a former director of the Chongqing Public Security Bureau.
A U.S. official said Wang—who drove 200 miles from Chongqing to Chengdu, entered the embassy in a disguise, and spent the night at the American consulate—turned over a stack of documents during his 10-hour stay.
China is now demanding that the documents be returned, which could prove disastrous for Wang.
A State Department spokesman declined to comment when asked if Wang supplied documents to the consulate in Chengdu.
"Wang’s fate is now in U.S. hands," said the official, adding that returning the documents would give Chinese authorities evidence that could be fatal for the former police chief, who is known as an anti-organized crime crusader by some and as a violator of human rights by others.
Details of what is contained in the documents could not be learned. But they are believed to include allegations of corruption aimed at Bo Xilai, the regional Communist Party secretary and Wang’s former boss who is considered China’s leading anti-U.S. nationalist leader and a contender for power in Beijing.
In China last week, Beijing authorities went to great lengths to play down the Feb. 6 incident. Minimizing the effect has been difficult, however, as regional communists under Bo Xilai dispatched armored personnel carriers and tanks to a neighboring province to threaten the U.S. consulate and force the return of Wang.
The consulate standoff ended after a senior official of the Ministry of State Security, China’s civilian intelligence and political police service, was sent to Chengdu. He then escorted Wang out of the consulate and on to an aircraft for a flight to Beijing.
On the way out, the MSS official reportedly engaged in a heated exchange with one of Bo’s underlings who attempted unsuccessfully to convince the MSS official to turn over custody of Wang.
Over the weekend, Chinese state-run media reported that Wang, who until his visit to the embassy was still vice mayor of Chongqing, had been replaced by a new vice mayor, Guan Haixiang.
A second U.S. official familiar with China affairs said the State Security Ministry in Beijing is holding Wang in preventive detention. He reportedly has declined to talk to a Communist Party disciplinary committee regarding corruption allegations against Bo Xilai, believing that Bo controls the committee and that his safety would be imperiled.
The incident was high political drama for the secretive world of Chinese Communist Party politics. The government exercises near-totalitarian control on state-run media that for years successfully hid internal differences and corruption at the highest levels of the Party.
Chinese websites have been filled with reports on the Wang case, with some claiming he defected to avoid being purged but most commenting that it will likely lead to the downfall of Bo Xilai. Photos of the armored personnel carriers and tanks sent to intimidate the U.S. embassy into releasing Wang were quickly passed around Chinese Internet sites.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee recently launched an investigation into the Wang affair and requested all cables and emails related to the case. Committee Chairman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) has said it appears the department mishandled an attempted defection. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Friday the department is working on responding to the committee’s document request.
The case also highlights growing concerns among U.S. officials that China’s outwardly stable regime is facing a major internal crisis in the months leading up to a leadership change. China is expected to replace current President Hu Jintao with Vice President Xi Jinping.
Chinese officials recently told U.S. visitors to China in the aftermath of Wang’s attempted defection that they were extremely concerned it would have ruined Xi’s U.S. visit. China’s government is seeking a smooth leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress set for this fall.
Publicly, Chinese officials are trying to dispel or discredit reports of a major internal power struggle, claiming the Wang case is an isolated event and will have no impact on China’s foreign policies.
A third U.S. official said the Obama administration’s handling of Wang’s asylum appeal—it was rejected to avoid upsetting the Xi visit—contrasts sharply with the case of Fang Lizhi, who, in 1989, was personally invited to seek asylum inside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing by then-President George H.W. Bush. Fang spent 13 months in the embassy before being allowed to leave the country and settle in the United States.
Other officials said the two cases are not the same because the Chinese appeared ready to use force to prevent Wang from defecting.
Senior Chinese officials also have praised President Obama for his decisive handling of the Wang case and for not allowing the defector to stay in the consulate for a longer period of time.
Some U.S. officials worry that increased factionalism will lead to a strengthened Chinese military that views the U.S. with suspicion.
Bo is the central figure of a faction within the Communist Party and its military that wants China to become an assertive military superpower, and wants to jettison China’s close economic ties to the U.S. Behind the scenes, a second major nationalist and anti-U.S. official is said to be Zhou Yongkang, who is in charge of China’s security forces as a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the nine-member collective dictatorship headed by Hu Jintao.
Arrayed against these hardline officials are the "princelings," well-to-do offspring of Communist revolutionaries who have benefitted from China’s economic reforms. These officials, led by Chinese President Hu Jintao, adhere to the less ideological position that China must moderate its communist ideology in pursuit of modernization.
U.S. officials said the main worry is not that China will again be plunged into the chaos of a new Cultural Revolution. Rather, the fear is that China’s military will become much more hostile under the nationalists.
For example, hardliners are calling for major increases in Chinese weaponry, such as larger numbers of anti-satellite missiles and anti-ship ballistic missiles—weapons that, in sufficient numbers, would give China’s military the capability to defeat U.S. forces in a future conflict.
Intelligence officials believe reports of Chinese factionalism have been downplayed for over a decade as the result of the influence of pro-China academics. These academics argue China’s communist ideology is a shell, and its system is little different than other, non-communist states.
The dispute has pitted officials whose views are similar to Paul Heer, the current National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, against other officials who regard China as a growing threat and who believe current intelligence analysts have failed to understand and report accurately on the splits.
The debate on Chinese factionalism appears similar to an earlier attempt by Congress to mandate a study into whether U.S. intelligence analysis on China was "politicized" to play down threats from China.
The commission of intelligence analysts concluded in a still-secret report that U.S. analysts suffered from "institutional predisposition" to dismiss China's threatening military buildup and other activities.
The differences among U.S. analysts of China’s internal leadership also highlight disputes within the U.S. government as a whole among policy officials who have ignored troubling developments and threats posed by China. Others are worried that the government is ignoring dangerous warning signs of an emerging hostile China.
The Hong Kong Economic Times, a daily newspaper with good sources in Beijing, reported Feb. 15 that the Wang case exposed factional infighting between Chongqing and Shanghai communists, and that Bo Xilai’s Chongqing faction appears to be losing out in the political struggle.