A video image taken from CCTV shows Wang Lijun speaking during his trial. (Associated Press )
BEIJING — The Chinese police chief who fled to a U.S. Consulate in February and set off a messy, sprawling political scandal involving murder was convicted Monday on charges of abuse of power, defection, bribe-taking and "bending the law for selfish ends" and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The relatively light sentence for Wang Lijun, who was accused of helping to cover up a killing committed by his boss' wife, had been foreshadowed last week. In their indictment, prosecutors at the Chengdu City Intermediate People's Court had noted that the former Chongqing police chief had cooperated with authorities and had provided information against unspecified "others," which might result in leniency.
Wang's case has been closely watched for clues as to how the authorities are going to deal with his well-connected former boss, Bo Xilai. After the case broke, Bo was stripped of his position as Chongqing Communist Party secretary and later suspended from the Politburo for "serious disciplinary violations," but it has been unclear whether Bo would merely be expelled from the party or face criminal prosecution.
The scandal has come during a particularly sensitive year for the Communist Party, as it prepares for a once-in-a-decade leadership transition this fall in which President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are expected to transfer power to a younger generation. Before the scandal broke, Bo was viewed as a serious contender to join the Politburo Standing Committee, the small group of leaders who in effect rule China.
The case triggered internal party jostling and no date has yet been announced for the 18th party congress, at which the leadership transition is to occur and the new Standing Committee announced. With Wang's case now settled, attention is focused on Bo's fate.
Mo Shaoping, a lawyer who has defended dissidents and labor activists in sensitive cases, said Monday that it was clear from the details of Wang's case that Bo could face criminal charges.
"From a legal point of view, from Wang's trial we can tell that Bo is involved. So according to the normal law procedure, Bo would be charged with criminal offenses," he said. "But from a political point of view, maybe there will be no announcement about Bo before the party congress."
Bo's name was not directly mentioned in Wang's trial, but a blow-by-blow account of Wang's case published last week by the official New China News Agency said "the then-leading official of the Communist Party of China Chongqing Committee" — widely understood to mean Bo — reacted furiously when Wang told him his wife, Gu Kailai, was a suspect in the poisoning of British businessman Neil Heywood. Wang was slapped in the face, the agency said.
After that incident, Wang went to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu and spilled details of the case. Wang apparently had covered up Gu's involvement but later had a falling-out with her. Wang left the consulate after about a day, the case became public, and Gu was convicted last month of the murder. She was handed a suspended death sentence, which is typically converted to life imprisonment.
Hu Shuli, the prominent editor of Caixin magazine, said in a commentary over the weekend that the case exposed a serious lack of checks and balances in China's political and legal system.
Wang, she said, had no choice but to enter the U.S. Consulate. "When mafia members break up with their bosses, they can attempt to seek police protection. But in Chongqing and for the former police boss, there was nowhere to turn," she wrote. "And this perhaps encapsulates one of the greatest embarrassments of the country's current legal system."
Hu added that Wang's case may be just a "prelude to another trial, which can serve as the final installment to the saga and open the door to legal reforms.... It is clear that the establishment of a judicial system that can make horizontal and vertical checks on power must be implemented with greater urgency than ever."
Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.