Clinton reveals U.S. role in high-level 2012 incident with China

October 18, 2013

Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at Chatham House in London. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton has disclosed new information about the United States' role in a major 2012 diplomatic incident with China in which a Chinese official sought asylum at a U.S. Consulate but was turned away. That incident, which helped trigger the downfall of prominent Communist Party leader Bo Xilai, one of China's biggest political scandals in decades, has long been shrouded in a degree of mystery.

The incident began in January 2012, when Wang Lijun, the deputy mayor  and police chief of the southwestern city of Chongqing, confronted his boss, controversial Mayor Bo Xilai, with suspicions that Bo's wife had been involved in the murder of British businessman Neil Haywood. Bo responded by slapping Wang in outrage and demoting his longtime associate. A few days later, Wang fled to the U.S. Consulate in nearby Chengdu, apparently terrified for his life, and requested asylum. Chinese authorities surrounded the building. Some 24 hours later, Wang left the building and was promptly arrested.

At the time, neither U.S. nor Chinese officials would say what happened inside the consulate or why Wang left. Now, Clinton has provided new details, hinting at some of the apparently high-level U.S. and Chinese maneuvering over the case. In remarks last week at the London-based think tank Chatham House, video of which was released Friday, Clinton revealed that the United States rejected Wang's request for protection but did agree to help him relay a message to Beijing.

U.S. officials quickly decided, Clinton says, that Wang did not meet the legal requirement for asylum. "He did not fit any of the categories for the United States giving him asylum," she said. "He had a record of corruption, of thuggishness, of brutality. He was an enforcer for Bo Xilai." U.S. law prohibits asylum for anyone who has participated in the persecution of others, a standard that would probably have applied to Wang's famously heavy-handed campaign against Bo's political enemies in Chongqing.

Clinton added that the United States ruled out allowing Wang to stay at its consulate in Chengdu, something that other Chinese asylum-seekers have done to avoid arrest. In 1989, for example, democracy activist Fang Lizhi lived at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for 13 months before he could be spirited out of the country. Clinton said the United States refused to extend this protection to Wang but did not rule out other kinds of assistance.

"He was trying to somehow get his way to a place of safety," she explained. "What we did was to tell him that he could not move in to the consulate, there was no grounds on which we could offer that to him."

Instead, according to Clinton, American officials offered to resolve the incident by quietly brokering a communication between Wang and the national leadership in Beijing. China's political system is unusually fragmented, with national and regional leaders often at odds. Bo in particular was well-known for a style of rule that was at odds with Beijing's. Wang, it seems, had wanted to relay information about Bo's abuses directly to national leaders before he could be spirited away by the police encircling the building, who Clinton said were "subordinate to Bo Xilai."

"He kept saying that he wanted to get the truth to Beijing," Clinton said of Wang, explaining that the standoff was resolved when U.S. officials helped Wang send a back-channel message on to Beijing. "He wanted the government in Beijing to know what was happening. So we said we could arrange that. So that's what we did. And we were very discreet about it and did not try to embarrass anybody involved in it, but tried to handle it in a very professional manner, which I think we accomplished."

After that, Wang left the consulate willingly and was immediately scooped up by Chinese police.

While Clinton does not reveal the content of Wang's message, his flight to the consulate triggered the beginning of Bo's fall from a Communist Party rising star to disgrace and imprisonment. Top party officials quickly turned against him, publicly denouncing him and later accusing him of complicity in Haywood's murder. A month after the consulate incident, Bo was dismissed from his post. He and his wife were soon after arrested for Haywood's death, for which they both faced trial earlier this year. Wang was sentenced to 15 years in prison for abuses perpetrated under Bo's rule and for "attempting to defect" when he fled to the U.S. Consulate -- an unusually light sentence for high-level political crimes. Bo was given life in prison and his wife received a suspended death sentence.

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Max Fisher | October 18, 2013