China’s communist government is preparing to file treason charges against a former official who sought political asylum at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu but was turned away to avoid upsetting U.S.-China relations, according to U.S. officials and Chinese reports.
The former official, Wang Lijun, a Chongqing police chief and deputy mayor until his visit to the U.S. consulate Feb. 6, is expected to be charged with treason, a crime that under the communist system normally results in summary execution or life in prison.
Wang made a dramatic escape from Chongqing in February wearing a disguise, and spent the night at the U.S. consulate, as scores of Chinese security police surrounded the diplomatic outpost.
U.S. officials said Wang provided information and documents on the case of British national Neil Heywood, who was found dead in a Chongqing hotel the previous November.
The Free Beacon reported May 1 that the office of Vice President Joe Biden was behind the administration’s decision to turn Wang away from the consulate, in particular Biden national security aide Antony Blinken.
Blinken, according to administration officials, overruled State and Justice Department officials who favored granting Wang political asylum and working to get him out of China.
A White House official, however, later denied that Blinken or the White House was behind the decision not to grant political asylum to the defector. President Obama was informed of the incident, but the official said he was not directly involved in the handling of the case.
Critics of the decision to reject Wang said it was based on concerns that the defection of so senior a Chinese official would upset U.S.-China relations and disrupt the visit of Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to be the next top leader of China.
Those in favor of asylum argued during teleconferences and phone calls between Feb. 6 and Feb. 7 that a 1980 law required the U.S. government to grant asylum to those seeking it if they are threatened.
Wang asserted during his stay at the consulate that his life and safety were threatened by Bo Xilai.
In the end, Wang was turned over to a senior official of the Ministry of State Security, the Chinese political police and intelligence service, after he left the consulate. He was taken to Beijing where he was placed in detention.
Wang’s attempted defection set off a political scandal in China that continues to unfold.
The wife of Chongqing Party leader Bo Xilai, Gu Kailai, and an accomplice were tried for Heywood’s murder two weeks ago.
Four other Chongqing police officials are facing charges of covering up the crime that has been the largest communist political scandal in China since the arrest of Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, and three others in 1976 for plotting a coup.
Larry Wortzel, a former military intelligence officer who has worked in China, said the Chinese handling of the Wang case will likely be intended to send a message about inner-party loyalty.
"I am not sure how much intelligence we may have lost," Wortzel said in an email. "My best guess is that he was most knowledgable about inner party matters and internal corruption, but not affairs of state and national security."
Wortzel said whatever punishment Wang receives will be part of series of actions designed to send a message to potential defectors and "more importantly to well-placed Communist Party members, not to air internal dirty laundry with foreigners."
Additionally, another lesson for defectors is if you are going to defect try to do it in a place where you can be moved more easily, like Hong Kong and not "deep in the heart of China," Wortzel said.
Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who until his retirement last year headed the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said reports that Wang will be tried are disturbing.
"I'm very concerned that the consulate turned this individual away knowing what the consequences might be—the Chinese trying this individual for treason," said Hoekstra, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat Debbie Stabenow.
"America has a deep responsibility to such potential human assets," Hoekstra added.
Ken deGraffenreid, a former White House National Security Council intelligence director during the Reagan administration, criticized the administration for mishandling the Wang case.
"The failure to grant asylum to Wang Lijun is a major intelligence and policy failure—the loss of a potentially valuable source on a regime whose internal politics remain opaque to us, despite the $100 billion we spend on the intelligence community," deGraffenreid said.
"This purposeful neglect of needed intelligence has become an Obama administration habit," he said.
Another example was the quick removal back to Russia of a group of 10 deep cover Russian intelligence officers who were uncovered but never fully interrogated, he said.
"And all of this is done in the name of diplomatic cosmetics," deGraffenreid said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined comment.
Hoekstra noted that the Wang case appears similar to that of a Pakistani doctor who helped U.S. intelligence agencies find Osama bin Laden. Pakistani authorities later imprisoned the doctor.
A U.S. intelligence official said Wang’s expected trial on treason charges will be held in Chengdu—an indication that the crimes occurred at the U.S. Consulate and are not related to any corruption or other activities that may have taken place when Wang was a senior police investigator in neighboring Chongqing.
Veteran Chinese reporter Chen Wei, who posted a report on the case on the Chinese Internet site Sina Weibo in mid-June, first reported the treason charges.
The mishandling of Wang’s defection was a lost opportunity for U.S. intelligence agencies, which have been struggling for years to develop sources within the secretive Chinese leadership, U.S. officials have said.
A U.S. official familiar with intelligence activities against China told the Free Beacon in February, "Wang possessed invaluable knowledge of the current Chinese power struggle, and the efforts of the hardliners like Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai to upset the smooth succession of Xi Jinping."
According to China’s Caixin economic news portal, the new Communist Party boss, Zhang Dejiang, made the most recent official comment on the Wang case June 22 during a Communist Party meeting in Chongqing. Zhang replaced Bo Xilai, who was ousted following Wang’s attempted defection.
"We must note that the Wang Lijun incident, the death of Neil Heywood, and the serious disciplinary violations of comrade Bo Xilai have greatly tarnished the image of the party and the nation and have had a grave impact on Chongqing’s reform and development," Zhang said.
Another indicator in the case was the announcement by state-run Xinhua that Wang had resigned from the Chinese National People’s Congress in Chongqing on June 26.
Wang’s fate was first set in March when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told reporters that Wang was under "special investigation" by communist authorities.
"The current term of the Chongqing Municipal Party Committee and the Municipal Government must make self-reflection and earnestly draw a lesson from the Wang Lijun incident," Wen said at a March news conference.