House Probes Botched Defection in China

House committee seeks cables, memos on police chief who sought asylum but was rejected by White House

February 15, 2012

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is investigating whether the U.S. government mishandled a request for asylum from a senior Chinese Communist Party official who was turned away from a U.S. consulate after spending a night at the diplomatic post in southern China.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, disclosed the staff investigation in a letter sent Friday to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The probe followed a report in the Washington Free Beacon that the attempted defection of Chongqing Deputy Mayor Wang Lijun, a senior crime investigator, was mishandled last week, resulting in the loss of a potential inside source on China’s secretive communist leadership circle.

Ros-Lehtinen stated in the letter that reports indicated Wang traveled to the Chengdu consulate on Monday Feb. 6 wearing a disguise.

She said Wang might have been denied asylum by the United States after Chinese authorities learned of the attempted defection and police and security forces surrounded the consulate.

"Wang’s current whereabouts are unknown," she stated. "These reports raise questions about whether Mr. Wang sought asylum protection from the United States and, if so, what steps were taken to secure U.S. national interests and Mr. Wang’s personal safety."

The chairman requested that the State Department turn over to the committee by Feb. 17 copies of all cables, memoranda, "Official/Informal" classified emails, and other communications between Consulate Chengdu, Embassy Beijing, and the State Department.

She also called for a briefing on the incident and for the department to provide "China-specific written guidelines for handling walk-in asylum seekers at overseas U.S. diplomatic facilities."

Ros-Lehtinen said the department should respond quickly to "this time-sensitive matter of concern."

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to comment when asked about the House probe. Nuland earlier did not comment when asked if the White House intervened to block Wang’s defection, but dismissed reports from the region that said U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke tried to grant the Chinese official refuge at the consulate but was overruled by the White House.

A White House National Security Council spokesman referred questions to the State Department.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said the Obama administration has a poor record of helping defectors and others who are seeking U.S. help.

"It doesn’t surprise me," Wolf said in an interview. "This administration doesn’t want defectors. They don’t want to do anything to create a problem with China."

Wolf said he plans to contact Ros-Lehtinen to assist the investigation.

The international drama in Chengdu exposed serious fissures among top Communist Party leaders and included allegations of corruption against Bo Xilai, the top Communist official in Chongqing. Bo is a neo-Maoist hardliner seeking a seat on the ruling nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, China’s collective dictatorship headed by President Hu Jintao.

According to U.S. officials and reports from the region, the drama began sometime last week when a disguised Wang slipped out of his residence in Chongqing and traveled by car to Chengdu. Prior to reaching the consulate he called and asked for an appointment and was allowed in to the facility.

He arrived around 10:00 p.m. local time Feb. 6 and stayed inside the consulate through the night.

During his stay, he briefed U.S. officials, including Consul General Peter Haymond and two other consular officials.

A source familiar with Wang’s debriefing said it contained details of corruption and links to organized crime by his boss, Bo Xilai, as well as details about Chinese police repression of dissent.

During the overnight stay, Haymond contacted Ambassador Locke at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and Locke contacted senior State Department officials in Washington with the recommendation that Wang be protected and allowed to stay in the consulate.

However, the White House overruled Locke over concerns that harboring a senior Communist Party official inside the consulate would upset U.S.-China relations days before the arrival in the United States of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who has been designated as the next Chinese supreme leader. The leadership changeover is expected to happen this fall.

A senior U.S. official said that after the rejection of asylum, Locke contacted senior Chinese leaders in Beijing who agreed to dispatch a Ministry of State Security (MSS) official to Chengdu who could escort Wang from the consulate without his being arrested or taken by local security forces.

As the senior MSS official escorted Wang from the compound, he got into a heated argument with a senior Chongqing government official who tried to gain custody of Wang.

Wang was then taken to Beijing to make his case against Bo Xilai.

Officials said that Zhou Yongkang, China’s most senior security official and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, has taken charge of Chongqing from Bo Xilai. However, Zhou has not allowed Beijing security authorities to further investigate or arrest Bo.

Former State Department official John Tkacik, who has dealt with walk-in Chinese while posted at diplomatic outposts in China, told the Free Beacon he welcomed the House committee’s investigation, saying the panel has a legitimate oversight role in ensuring that the State Department handles defections professionally, diplomatically, and humanely.

He also said the State Department should deal with such cases "in a way that will result in the maximum benefit to the United States, particularly in the exploitation of an intelligence asset."

Tkacik noted the administration of President George H.W. Bush in 1989 granted high-risk asylum to Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi and his family inside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for 13 months.

"I think the actual details and mechanics of the Wang Lijun case should be handled by the Intelligence Committees in, of course, very, very closed session," he said. "But the [House Foreign Affairs Committee] does have a responsibility for ensuring that the State people are adequately trained to handle these situations."