CHENGDU, China — At the height of his career, Wang Lijun led a police crackdown on the violent underworld in a sprawling metropolis, arresting hundreds of gangsters and government officials, some of whom were sentenced and executed in a matter of months. Now the former police chief is in the hands of the opaque Chinese justice he once brandished against others.
The youthful looking 52-year-old Wang will face charges of defection, bribery, and other crimes Tuesday in a closely choreographed trial expected to be speedy. He is a central figure in China's messiest political scandal in decades that led to the ousting of senior politician Bo Xilai, a murder conviction against Bo's wife and the roiling of the Communist Party leadership in the midst of a delicate transfer of power.
Wang triggered the scandal when he unexpectedly went to the U.S. Consulate last November with explosive information: a British businessman had been murdered with the involvement of Bo's family. His almost certain conviction marks the downfall of a prominent, colorful police chief, who often skirted the law he made a flamboyant show of enforcing.
In history "until relatively recently, he who lived by the sword often perished by the sword. Wang Lijun is facing an outcome along that line," said Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in Britain. "He, being somebody who has a long record of not delivering justice while in a position requiring him to do so, to end up facing the same fate, I would call it 'poetic injustice.'"
Putting Wang on trial is a next step for the leadership in moving past the scandal and dealing with the stickiest issue: whether to expel Bo from the party and prosecute him. Proof that the scandal's fallout continues to dog Chinese leaders is that they have yet to announce a date for a party congress to install the new leadership, though it is expected in mid- to late October.
A career policeman of more than two decades, Wang made a name for himself as a gang-buster in a northeastern province, where he met Bo, then a fast-rising politician who, as the son of a revolutionary veteran, had a web of political contacts.
The two rode to national fame together, launching a high-profile sweep against organized crime in Chongqing, an inland megacity where Bo had been named party chief.
In magazine cover stories and on television news, Wang was depicted as someone willing to tackle vested interests. Among the 13 people executed during his time was the head of the city's justice bureau. Behind the headlines, the use of torture to extract confessions and arrests to pressure businessmen to steer deals toward Bo and his allies created enemies at the highest levels and proved their undoing.
Long before his surprise flight to the consulate, Wang displayed a penchant for drama. As a senior police officer in the northeastern city of Tieling, he drove a jeep that he had modified to carry two rows of lamps on its roof so that when he arrived anywhere, "everyone would know that 'Chief Wang is here,'" wrote screenwriter Zhou Lijun, who spent time with Wang after being tasked by the government to make a TV series about him in 1996.
Wang would jump on the roof of a police car and fire a warning shot into the air with his gun when dealing with small-time criminals, Zhou wrote.
In 1998, Wang ran over a man who was pedaling a bicycle cart with a pregnant woman and child on it, the China Youth Daily reported in 1999. When the man insisted on waiting for police to record the accident, Wang punched him in the face and had him detained.
"His attitude is not good, take him away and teach him a good lesson," the newspaper quoted Wang as telling the officers at the scene.
His passion for police work also drove him to invent law enforcement tools and file patents for them: adjustable poles for mounting surveillance cameras, reflective jackets, boots for female officers, a battery-powered fan-cooled police helmet for Chongqing's muggy summers and a streetlamp that also serves as a closed-circuit camera.
With Bo backing him in Chongqing, Wang grew bolder. When a no-nonsense Beijing lawyer tried to defend an alleged mob boss by accusing police of torture by suspending the man from the ceiling in handcuffs during interrogation, Wang had the lawyer detained and abused in detention.
Within weeks, the lawyer, Li Zhuang, was sentenced to 18 months in prison on charges of fabricating evidence.
His excesses would likely have not gotten him into trouble had he not embarrassed the ruling elite by going to the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu with his fantastic tale of corruption and murder in high places.
It is still not clear why he made that trip, though he had recently been sidelined by Bo in a sign of strained relations between them: In January, Bo had him removing him as police chief and giving him a less powerful post as vice mayor in charge of sports.
During his 33 hours inside the consulate, police and officials from Chongqing circled the consulate and urged him to come out. U.S. officials refuse to say if Wang asked for asylum. They have said the diplomats explained to him that U.S. policy does not allow consulates or embassies to grant asylum.
Wang later left, turning himself over to a senior state security official from Beijing.
Most of the charges he faces carry up to 10-year prison terms though longer sentences may be given for extreme breaches.
In a report on his indictment two weeks ago, the official Xinhua News Agency said that Wang knew Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was suspected in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood over a business dispute but that he "neglected his duty and bent the law for personal gain" to cover up for Gu.
At the trial last month after which Gu received a suspended death sentence, prosecutors said Gu conferred with Wang before murdering Heywood and reported back to him afterward, said a lawyer who attended the trial. The lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Wang recorded the conversations, which were used as evidence against Gu.
"When Gu Kailai was trying to decide on when to carry out the murder, she and Wang Lijun met to discuss this. But in the end, Wang Lijun became the whistle-blower. It was never explained in court why he became the whistle-blower," said the lawyer.
Wang seemed aware that in the complex world of Chinese politics, he served at the whims of more powerful politicians.
"In my heart I am very clear, I am just a piece of chewing gum in an official's mouth, to be spat on the ground after being chewed until there is no flavor, and then stuck on the bottom of someone's shoe," the screenwriter Zhou recalled Wang as saying once.
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