The Obama administration rebuffed a senior Chinese police official in southern China who sought to defect, turning him away after his presence became known to Chinese security forces.
An administration official familiar with China affairs said the botched defection of Wang Lijun, a vice mayor and chief crime investigator in Chongqing, was mishandled not only by local American officials in China but also by White House and State Department officials in Washington unwilling to upset China by granting Wang refuge in the consulate.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.) chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said in an interview last night that the administration's handling of the Wang case is something the subcommittee will investigate.
"There seems to be repetitive examples of people trying to help the United States who end up suffering," Rohrabacher said, noting Pakistan’s prosecution of a Pakistani doctor who helped U.S. intelligence locate and kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladin.
In the case of Wang, it appears "the State Department is either clueless or duplicitious regarding the very nature of the gangster regime in Beijing."
The official said Wang’s defection would have provided a windfall for U.S. intelligence agencies that currently lack insight into the secretive world of Chinese leadership politics.
The attempted defection of Wang played out amid international intrigue involving what officials say is a major power struggle within the senior ranks of the outwardly placid Chinese Communist Party.
The struggle pits a hardline nationalist faction headed by Wang’s boss, regional Party Secretary Bo Xilai, and central authorities in Beijing, led by current President Hu Jintao.
Two U.S. officials said Wang supplied the consulate with information related to corruption within the highest ranks of the Party, including information about Bo.
Bo is the son of a founding communist revolutionary who is a hardline anti-American, neo-Maoist leader and is seeking a seat on the nine-member collective dictatorship that rules China. The officials cautioned that details of the attempted defection and power struggle are murky.
The seriousness of the power struggle, however, was highlighted by reports that the Party’s highest ranking security official, Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, traveled to Chongqing to deal with the scandal.
The presence of Zhou, considered by U.S. intelligence analysts to be a contender to head the country when China changes leaders later this year, is fueling speculation that arrests of either Bo or Wang are imminent.
The scandal comes days before China’s designated successor to Hu, Vice President Xi Jinping, will visit Washington for meetings with senior Obama administration officials. Xi arrives Feb. 14 and is scheduled to meet Vice President Joseph Biden and also will travel to the Pentagon.
"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. Now we don't know as Xi Jinping arrives next week what is going on at the top," one official said.
China’s state-run news agency Xinhua reported Thursday that Wang is under investigation after entering the U.S. consulate and then leaving a day later. It gave no other details.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Wednesday that Wang requested a meeting with consulate officials in his capacity as deputy mayor of Chongqing.
"The meeting was scheduled. Our folks met with him. He did visit the consulate, and he later left the consulate of his own volition," she said. "We don't talk about issues having to do with refugee status or asylum, et cetera."
Asked Thursday if Wang sought to defect, Nuland said her earlier comments are "all I have at the moment."
According to the officials, Wang traveled to Chengdu from Chongqing on Monday and was wearing a disguise when he went inside the consulate.
Some time during the visit, Chinese police and security forces surrounded the consulate and at that point U.S. officials realized that authorities had discovered Wang’s presence.
John J. Tkacik, a former State Department official once based in Guangzhou who had dealt with attempted defectors, said in an interview that the long duration of Wang’s visit is an indication he probably was going to defect.
"This really is extraordinary, assuming Wang did stay the night at the consulate," he said. "I would guess Wang actually did ask for asylum, and that the Consulate immediately messaged Washington and the Embassy for instructions . . . not pausing to think that there was no way to exfiltrate the poor man once he'd been identified by Chinese intelligence which has the Consulate under intense surveillance, 24-7."
Tkacik said he is surprised Chinese security forces did not act in a more forceful and visible manner to Wang’s presence. "But that probably means they moved openly only after their eavesdropping discovered Wang's intentions."
Tkacik said U.S. overseas missions generally cannot give any kind of asylum to nationals of the country they are in.
An exception was the case of noted Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi, who sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and remained for 13 months until Chinese authorities allowed him to leave the country.
Officials said Wang’s case was different: Because of his access to secrets and information relating to senior Chinese leaders, authorities would never allow him out of the country.
"I suspect that Wang did offer U.S. consular officials valuable information and, given his high rank in the Chinese police and his long-time career countering crime gangs in both Manchuria and in Chongqing (which was China's wartime capital of Chungking), the information he proffered was probably on Chinese government connections with Chinese organized crime, and specifically the so-called 'Triad' organizations," Tkacik speculated.
The overnight stay "suggests that the consulate took all night Monday transcribing the take and cabling it to Washington," he said. "But it seems pretty clear that Chinese intelligence quickly figured out what was going on."
Richard Baungan, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing declined to comment on whether Wang provided information about Chinese leaders, citing a policy of not disclosing the contents of diplomatic discussions.
An intelligence operation to secretly spirit Wang out of the country would be very difficult, Tkacik said. "Even if the U.S. had wanted to get Wang out, it is highly unlikely that any kind of exfiltration operation would either have been approved, and less likely that it would have been successful—regardless of whether a senior Chinese leader like Xi Jinping was planning a visit to the US or not."
Wang was a long-time protégé of Bo and has led the police campaign against organized crime in Chongqing province.
A former Chinese official in Chongqing told Reuters that Wang’s fall from power will likely impact Bo’s chances to advance within the senior Party leadership.
"Their ties were like fish and water. Wang has been a close follower of Bo, important in implementing his will," said the former official. "It's hard to see what really lies behind all this. But it will be a serious problem for Bo Xilai. At the very least, it looks bad."
According to an open letter purportedly from Wang that was obtained by the Chinese language dissident website Boxun, Wang wrote that, "when you all read this letter, I may well no longer be alive or have lost freedom."
The letter, published Wednesday and obtained by the website from one of Wang’s friends, stated that Bo Xilai was "the biggest mafia boss" in Chongqing and accused the regional Party chief of being "cold and ruthless" in seeking power.
The news outlet said the letter was dated Feb. 3—three days before Wang visited the consulate.
The letter could not be authenticated, but it has gone viral on China’s Internet, which boasts over 500 million users.
"I don't want to see Bo Xilai, the biggest hypocrite within the Party, to keep his show going on," the letter stated. "If the country is ruled by such an evil person [as Bo], it will be most unfortunate to China's future and will be this nation's disaster."