Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton turned away a high-ranking Chinese defector who sought political asylum after the communist police chief sought refuge in a U.S. consulate in southwestern China four years ago.
Critics say Clinton’s handling of the defection of Wang Lijun, a close aide to a regional Communist Party leader, was a blunder and lost opportunity for U.S. intelligence to gain secrets about the leaders of America’s emerging Asian adversary.
Instead of sheltering Wang and granting him political asylum, Clinton agreed to turn him over to Chinese authorities in Beijing, and claimed he was not qualified for American sanctuary because of his past role as a police chief accused of corruption.
However, the defector’s case highlights Clinton’s policy of seeking to preserve U.S. ties with China’s communist leadership instead of pursuing much-needed intelligence gathering on China at a time when Beijing is emerging as an increasingly threatening power.
Clinton defended the betrayal of Wang in her 2014 memoir, Hard Choices. The former secretary and current Democratic presidential nominee revealed in the book that the U.S. government agreed to keep secret all details of Wang’s sensational defection attempt in order to help Beijing’s Communist rulers avoid public embarrassment over a major internal power struggle and high-level corruption scandal months ahead of then-Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s transfer of power to current supreme leader Xi Jinping.
Details of the mishandling of the Wang defection have been kept secret by the Obama administration, and Clinton’s version of events were contradicted by U.S. officials and the official Chinese account. Instead of gaining long-term access to a valuable defector with inside knowledge of Chinese strategy and policies, Clinton contacted the Chinese government in Beijing and allowed security officials to take Wang into custody outside the U.S. consulate some 30 hours after he entered the property in a daring bid to flee China for the United States.
Weeks later he was charged with "defection" and other crimes, and in September 2012 he was sentenced to 15 years in prison—a lighter sentence than normal based on information he disclosed about his boss, regional Party chief Bo Xilai, the rising senior Communist leader who was later imprisoned for corruption.
Bo was a member of China’s 25-member Politburo Central Committee, a former commerce minister, and former mayor of the northern city of Dalian. He was said to be on track to become part of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the collective dictatorship that is the ultimate authority in China.
Critics say Clinton’s mishandling of the defection raises questions about her handling of China issues and national security affairs in general. She has touted her tenure as secretary of state as a key element of her bid for the presidency.
Intelligence and foreign policy experts said the main problem with the Wang case was the failure of American officials to keep the defection secret from Chinese authorities.
Clinton, the State Department, and the Obama administration in general have regarded such operational secrecy as a nuisance and impediment to their work. Under President Obama, the administration suffered unprecedented leaks of intelligence and foreign policy information, notably from Wikileaks, which disclosed more than 250,000 State Department cables. Clinton also compromised secrets by using a private email server that the FBI believes likely was compromised by foreign spy services that intercepted data from her insecure email system.
Recently disclosed emails from Clinton’s private server reveal the Wang Lijun defection was discussed in communications with aides, raising the possibility that the Chinese could have learned of her internal discussions of the case if they had obtained access to the email server.
"The FBI did find that hostile foreign actors successfully gained access to the personal email accounts of individuals with whom Clinton was in regular contact and, in doing so, obtained emails sent to or received by Clinton on her personal account," an FBI report states.
Had the defection remained secret, intelligence agencies could have conducted a clandestine "exfiltration" operation to spirit Wang out of the country, current and former intelligence officials said.
Clinton supporters dismissed criticism of the handling of Wang and said his dash to the U.S. consulate was calculated not as an attempt to flee China but to avoid capture by an opposing Communist political faction in Chongqing, and to alert Beijing leaders to Bo’s corruption and illegal activities.
Intelligence windfall on PRC leaders missed
Diplomats at the State Department also were opposed to helping the defector because of Clinton policies that sought to avoid actions that might upset Chinese leadership transitions. The diplomats, as with past transitions of power since the 1980s, argued that new Chinese leaders will produce hoped-for political reform and evolution away from the communist system.
But intelligence and foreign policy analysts say Clinton’s failure to grant asylum or temporary refuge to Wang squandered an opportunity to gain secrets from inside the closed world of China’s Communist leadership structure—intelligence needed in fashioning a U.S. response to China’s increasing aggression in Asia.
"Clinton and Obama do not see the world in geostrategic terms," said Kenneth E. deGraffenreid, a former White House intelligence director under President Reagan. "Clinton had no sense of the reality of the Communist regime they were dealing with."
DeGraffenreid, who also was deputy national counterintelligence executive in the George W. Bush administration, said defectors like Wang should be assisted when they can provide valuable secrets.
"Wang would have been pure gold from an intelligence standpoint, given the paucity of sources inside the Chinese government," he said, adding that Wang’s links to a Chinese political faction should not have disqualified him for asylum or sanctuary.
Defector had documents and cash
Events surrounding the police chief’s dramatic defection resemble the plot of a spy novel. It began in early February 2012, days after Wang informed his boss on Jan. 28 that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, had been involved in the poisoning death of British businessman Neil Haywood in a Chongqing hotel room two months earlier. Days later, Wang was fired as chief of the Public Security Bureau in Chongqing, as the police service is called, but remained in his post as vice mayor.
Then three of Wang’s subordinates were placed under investigation, and Wang, because of his contacts in the police, learned that Bo was plotting his death by having him arrested and killing him during what he would say was an escape attempt. Discovery of the plot set in motion Wang’s plan to defect. He slipped free from a Chongqing security surveillance team and drove to the American consulate in Chengdu, several hours west in neighboring Sichuan province.
Wang was able to enter the consulate secretly on Feb. 6, 2012. He was carrying documents and a suitcase containing several hundred thousand dollars in cash, according to officials familiar with the case. He also made several telephone calls while inside.
According to the Chinese court record of the case, Wang initially discussed issues related to environmental protection, education, and science and technology with American diplomats. After the initial exchange, he then explained that he feared for his life and "asked the United States to provide shelter for him, and filled out an application for political asylum," according to the official Xinhua news agency report on the trial.
American diplomats at the consulate, including intelligence personnel, were unable to keep Wang’s defection secret. The consulate employs several Chinese nationals who are used as informants by the local Chinese security services.
Whether through informants or communications intercepts from within the consulate, within hours Chinese security services learned Wang was inside. Police quickly were dispatched to surround the consulate, including at one point armed Chinese police from Chongqing that were loyal to Bo, the regional Party leader who was desperate to capture Wang. Later, the Chongqing police were replaced by local Chengdu security personnel.
Wang revealed that Bo and his wife, like most senior Party leaders, had amassed illicit fortunes through corruption. However, most details involved the murder of the British businessman, expatriate Neil Haywood, who was involved in financial activities related to Bo and his family and ran afoul of Bo’s wife.
"The stuff he revealed was lurid," said one former official close to the case.
In addition to information about Bo, Wang told American diplomats he had information regarding the inner workings of the secretive Chinese leadership. Wang claimed to have internal Party and government documents but did not make them available to the consulate interviewers. He suggested the documents were being used as leverage and that he would arrange for their release if captured by the Chongqing police.
Asylum request turned down
Between Feb. 6 and Feb. 7, Wang’s appeal for asylum was turned down by officials in Washington, a decision that led Wang to seek a deal with Beijing authorities.
State Department spokesmen would not say if Clinton made the decision to reject Wang’s asylum request, citing a policy of not discussing asylum issues. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in Washington and U.S. Embassy Beijing spokesman Richard Buangan both insisted Wang left the consulate of his own volition.
Wang had decided that without political asylum or consulate refuge his sole resource was to bargain with Beijing authorities in exchange for protection from Chongqing police.
Clinton in her memoir and in earlier public remarks sought to portray Wang as corrupt, thuggish, and brutal, an assessment analysts say could be applied to most Chinese police and security officials.
Wang was known as an aggressive fighter of organized crime, first in northeastern Liaoning province and later in Chongqing where he targeted China’s notorious Triad gangs. The private intelligence firm Stratfor reported that the Triads at one point put out a $1 million contract on his life.
"Wang Lijun was no human rights dissident, but we couldn’t just turn him over to the men outside; that would effectively have been a death sentence, and the cover-up [of Bo’s corruption] would have continued," Clinton wrote in the book. "We also couldn’t keep him in the consulate forever."
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 1989 harbored Chinese dissident Fang Lizhui for over a year when the astrophysicist took refuge there after the military crackdown on unarmed protesters in Tiananmen Square.
Clinton made no mention of Wang’s formal asylum request and instead wrote that consulate officials asked the defector what he wanted before giving him up to Beijing security officials. "We reached out to the central authorities in Beijing and suggested that he would voluntarily surrender into their custody if they would listen to his testimony," she wrote.
The former secretary of state also stated she did not realize the significance of Wang’s offer to defect or the impact it would have. Additionally, she ordered complete secrecy surrounding the case to help Chinese leaders avoid a scandal during a major leadership transition in the coming weeks.
"We had no idea how explosive his story would prove or how seriously Beijing would take it," she wrote. "We agreed to say nothing about the matter and the Chinese were grateful for our discretion."
The "enormous scandal" that followed Wang’s arrest and his disclosures about Bo "shook confidence in the Communist Party’s leadership at a sensitive time," Clinton wrote, adding that Hu Jintao "badly wanted a smooth transition, not a national furor over official corruption and intrigue."
Clinton falsely says defector not qualified
Earlier, Clinton said during remarks to Chatham House, a British think tank, that Wang "did not fit any of the categories for the United States giving him asylum." She said he "had a record of corruption, of thuggishness, brutality" and was "an enforcer for Bo Xilai."
But a State Department document from 2010 contradicts her assertion. The document, labeled "secret," outlines in detail how officials at U.S. diplomatic outposts should handle foreign nationals who seek to defect. The foreign nationals are called "walk-ins" and can provide valuable intelligence.
"Walk-ins (1) may be sources of invaluable intelligence; (2) pose numerous security challenges; and (3) may need protection,"states the cable, made public by Wikileaks. "Improper handling of walk-ins can put them and post personnel at risk and result in the loss of important intelligence."
The document lists all categories of potential defectors expected as walk-ins, including "members of the national police and the military," as well as "political party officials."
Wang held several senior positions in Chongqing, including deputy Communist Party chief; deputy chief, party chief, and head of Chongqing police, and vice mayor.
Instead of asylum, Clinton could have helped Wang by authorizing "temporary refuge" at the consulate, but that option also was rejected.
The walk-in handling procedures call for making sure walk-ins are not false defectors sent by foreign intelligence services. They also call for keeping all requests for asylum or temporary refuge secret.
"If a walk-in is of intelligence interest, the case will be handled by the Intelligence Community (IC) once that interest is established, and reporting on the case will occur in IC channels," the document states.
The instructions also give diplomatic officials wide latitude in dealing with defectors, and call for limiting support if supporting the defector endangers diplomatic personnel.
It could not be learned if Wang was handled as an intelligence defector, but from Clinton’s comments it appears he was not.
However, the CIA gained some valuable data from Wang that is useful for conducting operations in China’s difficult intelligence environment. Chinese security services are known to employ large human and technical surveillance operations against foreign officials.
White House wanted defector thrown out
During the 30 hours Wang stayed inside the consulate, senior Obama administration officials at the White House also intervened. National Security Council staff officials and officials within the office of Vice President Joe Biden were worried that the attempted defection would upset Biden’s upcoming meeting in Washington with then-Vice President Xi Jinping on Feb. 14.
Biden aides, including national security adviser Antony Blinken, viewed the Wang defection as potentially derailing the Xi visit. The aides wanted the State Department to resolve the defector case quickly although it could not be learned if they pressed Clinton to turn Wang over to Beijing officials.
Wang was convicted during a secret trial in a Chinese court in Chengdu on Sept. 24, 2012, of the crime of defection—a charge rarely made publicly in China—for fleeing to the consulate. He also was convicted of abuse of power, bribe-taking, and for helping cover up the murder of Heywood.
The court in Chengdu where the secret trial was held was told that Wang was "a state functionary who knew state secrets," confirming his successful defection would have been valuable for the United States.
DeGraffenreid, the former White House intelligence director, said American intelligence in the past accepted Soviet defectors who were implicated in criminal activities during their intelligence careers. They include former KGB Gen. Oleg Kalugin, who defected in the 1990s, and Ion Pacepa, a Romanian intelligence chief who defected in 1978.
"The point is we’re not putting these people in for the Nobel Peace Prize," deGraffenreid said. "We’re trying to find people with insider knowledge. My category for defectors is can we get good intelligence. If that standard is not in [the Obama administration’s] manual, they ought to put it in."
Exfiltration difficult but not impossible
Intelligence analysts said the difficulties of getting Wang secretly out of China were large but not insurmountable.
Once Chinese security agents had surrounded the consulate, the most likely course of action would have been to get Wang safely out of the diplomatic outpost to another secure location. From there, the CIA could have mounted an operation to provide transit out of the country, operations CIA officers in the past have been trained to carry out.
Another option would have been secretly to assist Wang in getting out of the consulate safely, and then helping him use his own skills and resources to get out of China with a promise of asylum at any U.S. diplomatic post in the region he was able to reach.
John Tkacik, a former State Department official who specialized in China affairs, said exfiltration became impossible once Chinese security was alerted to Wang’s presence at the consulate.
"Wang's intelligence value was known immediately to the consulate, and Wang's proffer of information on the murder of a British man by an extremely high-ranking Chinese official apparently was leverage to convince the U.S. consuls that he was worth the effort," Tkacik said.
The diplomats appear to have hesitated in eliciting even more valuable information from Wang over concerns that getting him out of the country was hopeless, and that prolonged temporary refuge of a senior Communist Party cadre would have severely strained U.S.-China diplomatic relations prior to an upcoming U.S.-China summit, he said.
"In hindsight, the summit was a waste of effort, and China continued to antagonize both the U.S. and America's allies for the next four years," he said. "So, if the U.S. had managed to pry more intelligence from Wang over the ensuing weeks, whatever was gleaned would have been a net benefit."
Continued U.S. government secrecy surrounding the case does not provide any gain for the United States since Wang is now in prison for 15 years, Tkacik added.
Clinton campaign spokesmen did not return emails seeking comment.
Peter Navarro, economics professor at University of California Irvine and adviser to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Asia, said Clinton failed to properly handle the defection.
"The mishandling of the attempted defection of Wang in 2012 reveals either an incompetence on the part of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state or further evidence of the propensity of both Bill and Hillary Clinton to subjugate U.S. interests to the interests of China’s ruling communist party," Navarro said.
"At a minimum, Wang should have been given temporary refuge status and been debriefed to determine whether his plea met the appropriate criteria for asylum — and what critical information he could have shared."
Navarro said the fact that the Clinton campaign team refuses to comment on the case "puts another brick in Hillary's stone wall approach to her failures."