New charges widening scope of China scandal

September 6, 2012 - 5:38 AM
China Political Scandal

FILE - In this Oct. 21, 2008 file photo, then Chonqing city police chief Wang Lijun speaks during a press conference in Chongqing, southwestern China. The former police chief at the heart of China's biggest political scandal in years has been charged with defection, power abuse, and bribe taking, state media reported Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, indicating the turbulent affair is moving closer toward a resolution before the nation transitions to a new generation of leaders this fall. (AP Photo, File) CHINA OUT

BEIJING (AP) — Bribery and illegal surveillance accusations against a former Chinese police chief point to malfeasance within the circle of disgraced politician Bo Xilai extending beyond the murder of a British businessman, adding further intrigue to China's biggest political scandal.

Few details have been released so far about the charges against Wang Lijun, the former Chongqing police chief who set off the scandal in February with his flight to an American consulate, where he raised concerns about the death of Neil Heywood. The trial last month of Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, in which she was convicted of poisoning Heywood, also left a multitude of questions unanswered.

Yet there has long been speculation that the scandal involved more than just murder, ranging from corruption on a massive scale to eavesdropping by Chongqing city officials on national government leaders — crimes which may have been alluded to for the first time in the indictment against Wang reported Wednesday.

Wang was charged with defection, bribe-taking, "bending the law for selfish ends" and abuse of power. The charges did not mention Bo, who since March has been under investigation by the ruling Communist Party for unspecified grave violations of discipline.

The abuse of power charge against Wang is the most intriguing because official media said it involved the illegal use of technical surveillance measures — a term implying bugging, wiretapping or computer monitoring.

Overseas Chinese websites publishing anonymous reports had claimed that Wang was conspiring with Bo and possibly others to secretly gather information on other top leaders in order to further Bo's political ambitions.

Secret recordings have long been a feature of Chinese political life, including the bugging of the People's Republic's founder Mao Zedong's personal train and of a commercial jet used by former leader Jiang Zemin during the last decade.

Hong Kong media reports in April accused Wang of electronically eavesdropping on telephone conversations between an official from Chongqing's Communist Party Standing Committee and President Hu Jintao's office. There has been no confirmation of those reports.

As a veteran officer closely attuned to politics, Wang would have been highly qualified to carry out such a mission.

"To be charged like that, Wang Lijun must have taken the measures against someone at higher rank and that will certainly enrage the party officials," said prominent Beijing-based lawyer Li Fangping.

"And if the order came from Bo Xilai, it could implicate Bo in criminal activity, although it isn't clear what criminal responsibilities Bo might bear in this respect," Li said.

Wang's run to the consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu led to a reopening of the investigation into Heywood's death, originally ruled a suicide. It also led the party to dismiss Bo, once one of China's most powerful politicians, as Chongqing's party secretary and suspend him from his seat on the ruling Politburo because of unspecified violations.

The scandal has overshadowed planning for a once-a-decade change in leaders at the top of the ruling Communist Party that is expected to happen next month.

The charismatic Bo had been considered a candidate for the party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee and his ouster has exposed divisions within the leadership at a highly sensitive time. However, Vice President Xi Jinping remains on track to take over from Hu as head of the party at the congress.

Wang had been Bo's right-hand man in Chongqing, spearheading a controversial crackdown on organized crime. Critics say the campaign featured torture and other violations of procedure, as well as illegal confiscation of assets and the targeting of political opponents.

The two reportedly fell out after Wang brought up Heywood's murder with Bo, who was not called as a witness or otherwise implicated in Gu's murder trial.

Wang is to go on trial in Chengdu, though no date has been set. His trial is expected to be swift and a guilty verdict is all but assured, with Xinhua saying Wednesday that the facts in the case were clear and the evidence against him "concrete and abundant."

Attorney Wang Yuncai said Thursday she was approved by the court to be Wang Lijun's defense lawyer. She said the court would decide whether the trial would be closed to the public based on whether it involves state secrets or personal privacy issues.

Wang was also charged with defection, relating to his consulate run, and for "bending the law for selfish ends" by not acting on his suspicions of Gu's culpability in Heywood's murder. Three leading Chongqing police officers and a Bo family aide also were sentenced as accomplices in the murder and a subsequent cover-up.

Xinhua also said Wang took "huge bribes" in return for granting favors, a common accusation in China where official corruption is a pervasive problem throughout the bureaucracy.

Whether those charges will taint Bo won't be known until an official announcement about his fate. That had been expected before the party congress, although University of Miami China expert June Teufel Dreyer said authorities might be holding back because of a lack of consensus or uncertainty over how to proceed in such a tight time frame.

"The door's still open to prosecute Bo at a future time," Dreyer said. "The more attention can be diverted from so high-level, and reputedly fairly popular, personage, the better."

Wang avoided the more serious charge of treason, possibly as a result of cooperating closely with investigators after leaving the Chengdu consulate, accompanied by Chinese intelligence agents.

None of the charges against him call for the death penalty, but in China that can change if state secrets or large sums of money are involved.

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Associated Press writer Gillian Wong contributed to this report.