The office of Vice President Joe Biden overruled State and Justice Department officials in denying the political asylum request of a senior Chinese communist official last February over fears the high-level defection would upset the U.S. visit of China’s vice president, according to U.S. officials.
The defector, Wang Lijun, was turned away after 30 hours inside the U.S. Consulate Chengdu and given over to China’s Ministry of State Security, the political police and intelligence service.
Wang has not been seen since Feb. 7 and remains under investigation. His attempt to flee China set off a major power struggle within the ruling Communist Party and led to the ouster of leftist Politburo member Bo Xilai and the arrest of his wife on murder charges.
New disclosures on the handling of the failed defection come as the Obama administration is facing a new test of its relations with Beijing over another defection, the flight to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing of Chen Guangcheng, a blind human rights activist who is believed to be in hiding there.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was scheduled to leave Monday night for talks with the Chinese in Beijing as part of what is called the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. The Obama administration has sought to downplay Beijing’s human rights abuses as part of its foreign policy toward China.
According to officials familiar with internal discussions on the Wang case, the rejection of his asylum request may have violated the 1980 U.S. Refugee Act, a law championed by Michael H. Posner, currently assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. United Nations human rights conventions on handling threatened refugees also may have been ignored, the officials said.
During interagency discussions over the attempted Wang defection, which played out during a tense standoff in China Feb. 6 and 7, Posner and other senior officials argued that the Chinese official should be granted asylum and helped out of China so he could appear before a federal judge in California.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to comment on the administration’s handling of Wang’s defection.
During the 30-hour incident in Chengdu, the consulate exchanged at least three cables with the State Department on what to do with Wang, a former police chief and anti-organized crime investigator who had run afoul of his boss, Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo.
According to the officials, Wang entered the consulate, located in a neighboring province from the large metropolis of Chongqing, and met with three consulate officials.
His presence and appeal for asylum triggered a debate within the Obama administration over whether to grant him political asylum.
The question posed to Wang after the exchange of three cables between the consulate and the State Department was whether Wang feared for his safety. At one point he said yes, his life was threatened as a result of a falling out with his boss, Bo Xilai. As evidence, Wang provided information indicating Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, had been involved in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, who was found dead in a Chongqing hotel last November.
The acknowledgement of the threat to his safety was the key element of the interagency debate that involved officials from State Department, including Posner and Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, along with Justice Department and National Security Council staff officials who met via teleconference.
In the end, Antony Blinken, Biden’s national security adviser, successfully prevailed over other officials in arguing that Wang’s asylum appeal should be rejected.
Blinken, according to the officials, feared China would cancel the upcoming visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, whose visit was to be hosted by Biden, unless Wang was sent away from the consulate as soon as possible.
During Xi’s visit, he and Biden met with Jeffrey Katzenberg—the head of DreamWorks Animation and multi-million dollar donor to President Obama’s Super PAC—to negotiate a business deal. DreamWorks is now under investigation by the SEC for possibly bribing Chinese officials during that deal’s negotiations.
White House spokesmen did not return emails seeking comment.
Posner, the State Department human rights official, favored helping Wang get out of the country. He argued that the 1980 law should be applied. Posner did not respond to multiple emails on the affair.
During his stay at the consulate, Wang was asked directly if he feared for his personal safety and answered that he did, thus meeting the criteria for asylum under both the 1980 law and the U.N. Human Rights Convention.
Members of Congress, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, were briefed on the affair during a closed-door briefing on Thursday, April 26. A committee spokesman declined to comment on the briefing.
Ros-Lehtinen on Monday urged the Obama administration to protect dissident Chen Guangcheng and his family from “continued persecution by the Chinese regime.”
“The U.S. must work to protect Chen and his family, not hand him over to Chinese authorities to face almost certain persecution,” she said in a statement.
Ros-Lehtinen accused the administration of making a calculated decision “not to challenge the Chinese regime on its dismal human rights record.”
“This is an opportunity to correct that mistake,” the Florida Republican said. “Instead of continuing to bury the issue, Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and [Treasury] Secretary [Timothy] Geithner must raise human rights publicly and in their meetings with Chinese officials this week.”
Earlier, Ros-Lehtinen said during a March committee hearing that the administration may have turned away a high-level asylum seeker by rejecting Wang’s appeal for help.
An official Chinese government report read to Party members in March said Wang filled out an asylum request during his stay in the Chengdu consulate.
“The possibility that the administration turned away an asylum seeker and, possibly, a high-value intelligence source raises a number of serious questions that require immediate answers,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
In an apparent attempt by the White House to minimize the role played by President Obama in the affair, a senior administration official told the Wall Street Journal last week that the president was informed about the affair but had no “direct” role in the decision to turn him away.
The official was quoted as saying a “firewall” exists between the White House and State Department on political asylum issues, an indication that legal considerations played a factor in the handling of the case.
The administration appears sensitive to the prospect of another scandal following disclosures about U.S. Secret Service agents and military personnel engaging the services of prostitutes while preparing for the president’s visit to Colombia.
The administration is also seeking to dampen any potential political fallout relating to the Wang case during the election campaign.
Regarding dissident Chen Guangcheng, the human rights group ChinaAid Association reported that Chen’s case should not be handled like Wang’s.
ChinaAid said in a statement issued Saturday that Chen is “under U.S. protection,” according to a source close to the dissident.
“This is a pivotal moment for U.S. human rights diplomacy,” said ChinaAid President Bob Fu. “Because of Chen's wide popularity, the Obama administration must stand firmly with him or risk losing credibility as a defender of freedom and the rule of law. If there is a reason why Chinese dissidents revere the U.S., it is for a moment like this."
Rather than turning him away as occurred in the Wang case, the group said, Chen should be handled like the 1989 case of dissident Fang Lizhi, who was allowed to stay 13 months inside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing until Chinese authorities allowed him to leave the country.
U.S. officials said Fang’s stay was approved personally by then-President George H.W. Bush, who authorized U.S. officials to escort Fang to the Embassy.