High-Level Defection or Convenient Vacation?

UPDATE 7: For an alternative theory, check out this post on Inside-out China.

UPDATE 6: The Chinese government has now announced that Wang Lijun did enter the US consulate and that they are “investigating.” Of course, we knew all that, but this announcement was — like the last one — posted to Weibo, where it immediately spread like wildfire. It seems quite obvious now that the authorities are letting this story spread on purpose.

The reason for this that we have been talking about is that it weakens Bo Xilai, something that some within the Party very much want to see happen. Alternatively, though, allowing this news to spread could be an attempt to “soften the blow” when Wang is almost inevitably branded corrupt and a traitor. Because he played a leading role in the anti-corruption campaigns in Chongqing, Wang is quite popular with average Chinese people, and much more widely known than the average vice-mayor. Perhaps the rumors and these announcements of things we already know are being intentionally spread to incept ((OK, that’s hyperbolic, but when else am I going to get to use this word?)) the idea that Wang, who we previously thought was good, is now bad.

Of course, there were already plenty of questions about the way the Chongqing anti-crime campaigns were conducted. If nothing else, these updates just continue to underscore that we still really have no idea what’s actually happening.

UPDATE 5: At the moment, Wang is back on the Sina Weibo trending topics list twice. “王力军” (an intentional mistyping of his name is #2 on the trending topics list, and the phrase “vacation-style medical treatment” is #7. Searches for “Wang Lijun” (typed correctly) remain uncensored. It’s quite clear that Sina is not trying to suppress this story at all, which begs the question: is someone at Sina trying to damage Bo Xilai?

UPDATE 4: The US State Department has confirmed that Wang Lijun was at the US consulate and that he left of his own volition, although they won’t talk about whether or not he asked for asylum. Very interesting. Here’s the relevant bit of the transcript from the State Department press briefing:

QUESTION: — specifically these reports coming out of China that a deputy mayor of Chongqing had sought refuge at the consulate in Chengdu and that there had been an unexpected increase in security personnel around the consulate for a while. What can you tell us about any of this?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think you’re referring to reports about the vice mayor of Chongqing – right – City. So his name is Wang Lijun. Wang Lijun did request a meeting at the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu earlier this week in his capacity as vice mayor. The meeting was scheduled, our folks met with him, he did visit the consulate and he later left the consulate of his own volition. So – and obviously, we don’t talk about issues having to do with refugee status, asylum, et cetera.

QUESTION: Okay. But – so can you tell us exactly when that meeting took place?

MS. NULAND: I believe – we’re here on Wednesday – I believe it was Monday, but if that is not right, we will get back to you.

QUESTION: Do you have any information about what – have you had any subsequent contact with him? Because there’s some questions about his whereabouts.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. To my knowledge, we have not.

QUESTION: And aside from any possible thing that you couldn’t talk about on asylum can you tell us what he did talk about there? What was the purpose of this meeting?

MS. NULAND: Frankly, I don’t have anything at the moment on the substance of the meeting.

QUESTION: Can you say why you said he used – why you used the term, “he left the consulate of his – on his own volition”?

MS. NULAND: Well again, there has been some reporting to indicate that that might not have been the case, but it was the case.

QUESTION: Okay. The reporting being that he had been forced to leave or that had been dragged out, or —

MS. NULAND: There’s been unusual reporting about all of this. So just to reaffirm for you, that he walked out, it was his choice.

UPDATE 3: Ai Weiwei has tweeted that according to a reliable American lawyer, Wang Lijun once asked the US consulate for asylum. However, he doesn’t name the source, and the word “once” makes it unclear when this happened. Hong Kong’s Oriental Daily News is reporting the rumors are true and that Wang asked for and was denied asylum, after which he was arrested, but who knows how accurate that is.

Meanwhile, McClatchy’s Tom Lasseter (@TomLasseter) is in Chengdu checking things out and finding things seem more or less normal.

UPDATE 2: Added a bit to the rumor section about Wang allegedly divulging information to the US.

UPDATE 1: See also this excellent piece by Tania Branigan in the Guardian with additional information.

Weibo and Twitter are buzzing today about an incident that apparently took place at the US consulate in Chengdu last night (thanks to @niubi for first bringing it to my attention). As far as I am aware, at the moment there are only a few real facts connected to this situation, and they are these:

  • Last night, the US Embassy consulate in Chengdu was surrounded by a large number of cars from the People’s Armed Police and other security organizations.
  • The US Embassy is not commenting on the situation, at least for the time being. Update: Still no comment, but this article confirms that the US had not requested the police presence outside the consulate.
  • The Chongqing Press Office announced this morning that Chongqing vice-mayor Wang Lijun is on “vacation-style medical leave” for “nerves”. (Reportedly, Wang’s mobile phone is switched off).
  • Sina has been censoring searches for “Wang Lijun” on and off throughout the day. ((at the moment I write this, it appears to be uncensored again, but I have seen it blocked and unblocked again twice this morning.))

So those are the facts as we know them. Here’s the narrative that’s been circulating which, for the moment, should be taken as very much still a rumor: Wang Lijun approached the US consulate in Chengdu last night to request political asylum. At present, he is either still inside the consulate, or has been refused and handed over to Chinese national security police. Update: According to some versions of the story, he was in the consulate for quite some time, and may have divulged significant amounts of privileged information to US diplomats.

What the hell is going on? I’m not at all sure. Making things especially weird is the fact that these topics quickly shot to the top of Sina Weibo’s trending topics list, but then disappeared. Searches for “Wang Lijun” were blocked, then unblocked, then blocked again, and now appear to be unblocked again. For reference, below is a screenshot I took of the search page during the first round of blocking (that I noticed, it may have been blocked and unblocked before this).

What’s really interesting about this — aside from the fact that I’ve never seen a search term blocked and unblocked so quickly before — is that whatever the truth behind the consulate kerfuffle and Wang Lijun’s involvement, this incident has two major potential political ramifications.

On the international side, the implications of a high-level official defecting or attempting to defect just before soon-to-be-president Xi Jinping makes his visit to the US could be huge. If the US were to grant Wang asylum, that would be….well, awkward probably doesn’t even begin to cover it.

On the domestic side, with China’s leadership transition fast approaching and Wang being high in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing administration, a defection or even just a rumored defection on Wang’s part could seriously damage Bo’s position. Certainly, there are forces within the Party who are very opposed to Bo’s rise, and it’s hard to think of what better ammunition they could have against him than something like this. On Twitter, @niubi theorized that Sina could be allowing some of the posts about Wang Lijun to go through on purpose to damage Bo Xilai’s reputation, and that certainly seems possible.

Assessing the likelihood that any of this (beyond the facts) is real is very difficult. On the one hand, the US generally doesn’t grant asylum from in-country embassies, precisely because those embassies are easy to surround with police. A year or so ago, I was asked by a Chinese friend to research this process, and found that generally speaking, it’s much easier to be granted political asylum if you’re outside the country you want asylum from. It strikes me that if Wang Lijun really did flee to the Chengdu consulate to request asylum, he must have been in a rather desperate situation. Otherwise, presumably, he could have waited for an opportunity to travel abroad and had a much greater chance of success.

Then again, a high-level official like Wang might be just the sort of person the US is willing to take that risk for. But it’s an awfully big risk, and the diplomatic fallout if the US granted Wang asylum would be massive. Still, if word of the incident gets out — and it certainly seems that’s happening — rejecting Wang’s application would be a PR loss internationally.

Anyway, it’s not at all clear what the heck is going on here, but whatever it is, it’s definitely interesting. We’ll keep an eye on it, but interested parties should pay special attention to Weibo, where there’s a lot of chatter about Wang and his “vacation-style medical leave” that is getting through the on-again off-again censorship.

0 thoughts on “High-Level Defection or Convenient Vacation?”

  1. Charles, I’m afraid some China-based Twitter users may have misunderstood your blog post. There’s a Chinese Tweet circulating on Twitter which suggests you are criticising the US Government for not offering assylum to Wang Lijun. If this is not what you mean & you don’t want to be misrepresented, you may want to clarify you position again at Twitter. The Chinese Tweet reads:

    RT @uponsnow: 美国自媒体人 @ChinaGeeks Custer 发文表示,虽然事件扑朔迷离,但是如果最终证实,美国外交官因胆怯而拒绝王立军避难,将重创美国的国际形象。

    This is the link https://twitter.com/#!/lss007/status/167135202836094977



  2. Yeah, I did see that and try to clarify a bit, but it has already been RTed a bunch. In any event, they’re not that far off from what I actually said. IF the US government did reject his request, I think that would be a serious PR loss internationally. Wang isn’t exactly a human rights defender but I doubt that would matter, this would be seen as the US kowtowing to China (in some circles, anyway) and essentially handing a man over to be executed (which I can only assume is what will happen if he really tried to defect, although I am not at all sure that’s what really happened).


  3. “On the one hand, the US generally doesn’t grant asylum from in-country embassies, precisely because those embassies are easy to surround with police. A year or so ago, I was asked by a Chinese friend to research this process, and found that generally speaking, it’s much easier to be granted political asylum if you’re outside the country you want asylum from. It strikes me that if Wang Lijun really did flee to the Chengdu consulate to request asylum, he must have been in a rather desperate situation.”

    Yes, it’s exactly this that makes me think this is rather unlikely. Contrary to popular opinion, embassies and consulates are not sovereign territory. True, the local cops cannot enter them without permission because of diplomatic inviolability, but they’re still under local jurisdiction so you cannot really ‘claim asylum’ except in the sense that the embassy/consular staff won’t allow the local police to come and get you. The embassy/consular officials are under no strict obligation to actively protect you (although obviously should not take actions that violate your human rights etc.).

    Even worse, there’s no way out of them once you’re in one. If you try to hide out at an embassy/consulate the very best that can happen is you spend the rest of your life there. At worst they either hand you over to the local authorities or never even let you in.


  4. Surely one factor in the US response to a hypothetical request for asylum would be the grounds for the request. If (I am only hypothesizing here) the deputy mayor was one step ahead of the CCDI and about to get busted on corruption charges AND there was no reason to think these charges were trumped up, it would be “a serious PR loss” for the US to shelter him in exchange for intelligence.


  5. Hmmm, perhaps Wang Lijun’s position as crimefighting chief of police makes him more important than the typical big-city vice-mayor.


  6. @ Otto: Yeah, it does. He’s a pretty high-profile guy because of all the attention the Chongqing campaigns got nationally. Also, Chongqing is a city but also a province in the sense that it’s now administered on its own, not as part of Sichuan, so he’s sort of like a provincial-level official, too.


  7. It’s also questionable whether Wang would have actually had any valuable intelligence to offer the US. Yes, the US would probably want to know things about China’s military or intelligence operations, but Wang was not an intelligence or military official, nor did his job touch on those areas. Wang might know internal gossip about the CCP leadership that could be embarassing, but the degree to which the leadership can be embarassed or blackmailed is actually very small – look at Jiang Zemin’s well-known affair with Song Zuying. Even if he is aware of corruption at high-levels in the CCP, it is hard to see how such information could be useful to a foreign power given that corruption is so wide-spread that it would be news if a CCP official was revealed to not be corrupt.


  8. @ FOARP: He presumably knows a lot about Bo Xilai, and I imagine the US is very interested in that information. Nothing useful from a military perspective, but from a diplomatic a very close insiders view of a rising political star would be useful.

    Of course, just allowing Wang into the embassy severely damages Bo, which might also have been the intention. I don’t know who US diplomats prefer, but I suspect none of them are excited about the prospect of Mr. Red Revival getting his hand into national (and international) policy, and it might be worth talking to Wang just for the damage it does to Bo regardless of what Wang actually has to say.


  9. Question: “trending topics” does not show what lots of people are talking about at that moment, but what subjects are becoming more widely mention at the fastest rate, correct?

    Could the blocking/unblocking actually have been to keep the subject at the top by giving it a high trend (i.e., from “zero” to “lots” is a very fast trend)?


  10. @FOARP: I don’t know anything about the algorithm they use for it. Probably only someone at Sina could answer that for sure, but that’s an especially delightful conspiracy theory!


  11. @CCuster:

    It is interesting that this issue seems to be among the trending topics on Sina but not on Baidu. I read a tweet from Josh Chin about this. Wonder if internet companies are being partisan in this conflict within Chinese elite politics? Do you have some comments on that?


  12. qriopal: It’s definitely possible. That said, with “sensitive” news like this, censoring it seems to be the rule rather than the exception, so I think it’s easier to draw conclusions about companies like Sina that did choose to let it go. Baidu, I would assume, suppressed it, but that’s not necessarily a partisan response, it is rather the default response for any “sensitive” news. So, was there partisan intent behind it in this case? We have no way of knowing.

    (Even what I’ve said about Sina is really pure speculation, I think there’s some logic behind it but at the end of the day who knows what’s going on behind the scenes. Something crazy, no doubt!)


  13. @Custer – Yes, in general I am a fan of the cock-up theory of history – most things happen through a series of accidents rather than because someone planned them, but conspiracy theories do have the advantage of being rather more fun.


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