When U.S. and Chinese officials sit down next week for their first high-level meeting in months, a number of difficult subjects will be on the table, from trade and currency disputes to human rights, cyber attacks, Syria and North Korea.
But the issue that has both sides of the Pacific abuzz — China’s unfolding political scandal, in which the United States played a small, but critical role — is one neither side is likely to broach.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wants to avoid the subject of regional Communist Party chief Bo Xilai, deposed last month in the southwestern city of Chongqing for alleged “discipline violations” as his wife was named as a suspect in the murder of a British citizen, and that of Wang Lijun, the local police chief who handed over evidence of the couple’s alleged crimes in February to amazed U.S. diplomats.
The State Department said Monday that Clinton, with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, will lead a delegation to the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue on May 3-4 in Beijing. The annual meeting is the keystone of U.S. efforts to put touchy U.S.-China issues on a smoother footing.
Since Wang first sought refuge in the U.S. consulate in Sichuan province on Feb. 6, Clinton and others in the Obama administration have supplied few details of what they describe as an internal Chinese issue. President Obama was not apprised of the situation during Wang’s 30-hour stay, an administration official said, adding that the White House considered it a “consular matter” to be handled by the State Department.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has received no reply to her Feb. 10 letter to Clinton demanding all information related to Wang’s visit and a briefing, according to her spokesman, Brad Goehner.
Ros-Lehtinen said in the letter that her concerns were based on reports that “imply that Mr. Wang may have been denied by the U.S. a request for asylum after Chinese authorities learned of [his] attempted defection.”
U.S. officials have never indicated that Wang attempted to defect or asked for asylum, instead suggesting that the agitated security official seemed to be interested only in temporary protection from members of his own police force, until he could organize safe passage to Beijing.
There are numerous examples of temporary refuge given at U.S. diplomatic installations, but “posts may not grant or in any way promise ‘asylum’ to any foreign national,” according to Foreign Service regulations. Asylum is granted only to applicants in this country or at a port of entry.
According to James Barbour, spokesman at the British Embassy in Washington, Wang had made an appointment at the British High Commission in Chongqing, but never showed up. Instead, he made a separate appointment 200 miles away in Chengdu, where the U.S. consulate for the province is located.
Onetime colleagues Bo and Wang apparently had had a falling out, leading to Wang’s demotion early this year and his subsequent decision to blow the whistle on his former boss. At the consulate, Wang handed over a file believed to include details indicating that British businessman Neil Heywood, whose death last November in a Chongqing hotel had been ruled a heart attack, had been murdered.
As the diplomatic complex was surrounded by local and paramilitary police, Wang telephoned Beijing, which reportedly sent an escort. His whereabouts since then are unknown.
Senior China watchers in this country agreed that the United States has nothing to gain — and much to lose — from involvement in the unfolding tale of political shenanigans and privilege at the highest levels of China’s Communist Party.
The scandal that brought down the powerful and charismatic Bo, widely considered to have been a rising star, has moved far from where it began with Heywood’s untimely death.
“This is a huge, big deal story, in terms of China’s internal evolution,” said a former U.S. official. “Our curious little bit part in it has no long-term implications.”
“It’s their dirty linen, not ours,” another former official said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity out of what they said was reluctance to be seen as sources on such a sensitive subject.
Some U.S. involvement, however, may be unavoidable, as reports have circulated about questionable financial dealings by members of Bo’s family. His son, Bo Guagua, a 24-year-old student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, has been stalked by reporters in Cambridge and chastized on Chinese blogs for a profligate lifestyle.
Media reports here and in Britain have alleged that Heywood, who was close to Bo and his wife, was moving Bo family funds abroad. Any cash transfer of more than $10,000 to U.S. banks would have been reported to American authorities.
“Unless there is law-enforcement information ... about financial holdings abroad, then this is a domestic affair,” said David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University.
For Britain, the scandal has become more difficult to publicly avoid. By January, Foreign Office officials were aware of gossip, emanating from the British expatriate community in China, that Heywood had not died of natural causes. His body had long since been cremated.
But Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was not informed of the suspicions until Feb. 7. On that day, British diplomats in Beijing received word of Wang’s revelations from the U.S. Embassy there, Barbour said.
Hague told Parliament last week that the government had repeatedly sought information from China, but received no answer until April 10, when Britain was informed “that an investigation into Neil Heywood’s death had begun and that proper judicial process would be followed.”
Staff writer Steve Mufson and
staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.