A Police Chief Jailed for 'Defection' and a Test Case in Chinese Cynicism

Chinese web users seem to see little evidence of rule-of-law in Wang Lijun's much-discussed case.

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Disgraced former Communist Party Secretary Bo (left) with then-Deputy Mayor of Chongqing and attempted defector Wang Lijun. (Reuters)

Wang Lijun, Chongqing's former anti-crime crusader has and erstwhile right-hand man of fallen politician Bo Xilai, is back in the news. In February, Wang Lijun made international news and ignited a huge political scandal in China when he fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, reportedly bringing with him information about Bo Xilai's wife's culpability in a plot to murder late British businessperson Neil Heywood. But Wang was far from a clean character himself. On September 5, China's Xinhua news outlet reported that Wang had been formally charged in a Chengdu court.

China's netizens greeted the news with interest. To say that Wang Lijun's name has been "censored" on Chinese social media, as some mainstream outlets have reported, is somewhat misleading. While searches for Wang's Chinese name are blocked on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, searches for words such as "王局" and "王局长" (roughly meaning "Secretary Wang") call up thousands of results. A mainstream media account dedicated to breaking news, @头条新闻, also tweeted directly about the Wang affair on Wednesday night, garnering over 4,400 retweets and 1,000 comments.

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Netizen comments to the "breaking news" tweet began cautiously, with several asking in the comments section whether they could in fact comment. One might think they had answered their own question, but their real query was likely whether censors would soon descend to snuff out discussion. Indeed, netizens began to comment tepidly until one exhorted her peers, "Hurry up and comment; comments will definitely be prohibited again soon." So far, Weibo commentary on Wang Lijun's fate remains alive, albeit limited given the visibility and importance of the charges. 

Commenters expressed particular confusion about one charge leveled against Wang. In addition to charges of accepting bribes, abusing his power, and "perverting the law for private purposes" (徇私枉法) Wang was also accused of "叛逃", which loosely translates as "defection." But the term is imprecise; one netizen asked others to explain its meaning, while another asked whether this was the same as treason. It's small wonder they were confused; as Donald C. Clarke, Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School, wrote in a recent blog entry, "Remarkably enough, defection is not defined...anywhere...in the Chinese legal system."

Despite the confusion about what exactly Wang was charged with, some also speculated on Wang's ultimate fate, a favorite (if ultimately fruitless) blogosphere parlor game that attends many of China's high-profile criminal defendants. One was sure it would be a death sentence, or a suspended death sentence (which usually converts into life in prison), while another felt life in prison was most likely. Another offered a more detailed analysis: "I surmise that he won't be sentenced to death. When the Americans handed Wang over, they surely brought up preconditions for handing him to the Chinese side-they would at least have ensured that Wang would not die."

If one common thread emerged from netizen chatter, it was the view that Wang's downfall was not in fact a victory for the rule of law, as Communist Party leaders might have hoped to spin it. Instead, they felt that Wang was simply the "victim in a power struggle," not fundamentally more corrupt than his corrupt colleagues. As one commenter put it, "Whoever you investigate, you'll find problems. It's just like that smiling official [a reference to public safety official Yang Dacai, who now finds his expenditures scrutinized online after being caught on camera smiling at a horrific accident scene]." Another wrote, "I've said this before, standing with the wrong team is very dangerous. I wonder how many among us are all standing with the wrong team." 

And some netizens simply said they liked Wang. One netizen from Chongqing wrote, "I am praying for him! In my heart, he is a good official, and I trust that many Chongqingers feel this way." Another wrote, "I once thought China had no heroes; I'd never thought that a hero was right by our side...I feel helpless to see this hero in distress."

Hero or not, Wang's present distress is beyond debate. One commenter vividly opined Wang had been "used up," with all valuable information and political utility extracted. But China's government may have misread the messages that charges against Wang appear to be sending. One netizen felt Wang's fate showed the "dead end" facing those who chose to fight crime in China. And another observer pointed out, "A comrade that dares to admit his mistakes and dares to make a report on a serious illegal matter should be given a light punishment, in order to encourage other comrades who have broken the law to actively atone for their crimes."

This article originally appeared at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.