Friday, February 10, 2012

Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai, and the US Consulate: What Happened

I just left China today.  By now the whole world knows that Wang Lijun, Chongqing's deputy mayor (and police chief until February 2nd), is in trouble; so is Bo Xilai, Chongqing's Party boss who has charmed many Western journalists.  

What on earth happened that led to Wang Lijun's "defection" into the US consulate in Chengdu?  Below is what I heard while in China.  Keep in mind part of this is informed speculation, so take it with a grain of salt. 

First, Wang Lijun was not seeking asylum with the US as some have guessed.  He was running away from Bo Xilai and seeking the protection of Beijing's Party Central, and he used the US consulate as a safe house, possibly also a message relay point.  He waited an entire day until the people sent from Beijing arrived, at which point he walked out of the US consulate "of his own volition," as state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland put it.

Wang then walked into a melee between two forces waiting outside:  Seventy police wagons sent by Bo Xilai, and agents of State Security sent from Beijing. The two parties scuffled and argued about who would take Wang Lijun into custody. In the end, Wang's plan worked: he was escorted to Beijing instead of Chongqing.

So why, at such a key point in Bo Xilai's political future, was he taking this unusual action against his right-hand man and police chief?

According to sources, Wang Lijun was involved in the "Tieling case" and is under investigation.  To make a deal for himself, he informed the Party Central's Commission for Discipline Inspection that Bo Xilai and his family had transferred money and property overseas.  Bo, of course, found out about Wang’s accusations and it led to the sudden arrests of Wang's eleven henchmen, including Wang's driver, as well as the removal of Wang from the post of Chongqing's police chief on February 2nd

Thailand World News says that, a reporter of the Chinese Southern Weekend spoke to Wang Lijun by phone on February 4th . When asked whether his driver had been arrested, Wang replied, "If he's arrested, so be it."  ("抓就抓唄.")

How Wang escaped Bo's control and drove three hours from Chongqing to Chengdu's US consulate on the 6th is still unclear. It is said that Wang used the excuse of visiting a university and received Bo's approval.  Which university is that?  It must be somewhere between Chongqing and Chengdu to provide Wang the possibility of escape.

Only 19 months ago, in July 2010, Chongqing's previous police chief, Wen Qiang, was executed by lethal injection.  Wang Lijun, who succeeded Wen Qiang as Chongqing's police chief, played a key role in Wen Qiang's downfall, and has been hailed as the heroic gangbuster.  Ironically and astonishingly, Wang turned from a police hero to a criminal more quickly than Wen Qiang did.  It brings forth the vivid image from the Chinese adage:  "The mantis stalks the cicada, while the oriole is after the mantis."

Wang Lijun is now in the hands of Party Central.  It will be very interesting to see how (or if) Beijing will explain his role reversal to the public. As to Bo Xilai, his hope to ascend is probably finished, though, as I heard someone say, don’t rule him out yet!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Dual Review of Tombstone and Mao's Great Famine

(Note:  I'm traveling in China right now, where I don't have access to my own blog.  I have to ask someone else outside to put this post up for me.  It was a surprise to me, though, that LA Review of Books is also blocked.  I don't know why and doubt that there was a particular reason, but now with my following review published, the Chinese government might indeed feel the need. Sigh. )

on two accounts of the great Chinese famine.

In July 2011, Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine won the BBC’s Samuel Johnson Prize, one of Europe’s best known and most lucrative awards for a work of nonfiction. One of the judges, Brenda Maddox, explained to the Guardian why the book impressed her so much: “Why didn’t I know about this? We feel we know who the villains of the 20th century are — Stalin and Hitler. But here, fully 50 years after the event, is something we did not know about.”

That reaction highlights both the main contribution and main limitation of Dikötter’s book. Though there have been many books and articles published on the same subject — in English, Chinese, and I’m sure other languages — apparently Dikötter’s is the one that brought awareness to at least one more Westerner ignorant of the catastrophe. On the other hand, Dikötter’s attempt to draw parallels between the Mao-era famine that swept over the entirety of mainland China from 1959 to 1961 and killed tens of millions, the Holocaust, and the Soviet Gulag is, at best, an over-simplification that hinders understanding. To borrow what the discerning Asia scholar Ian Buruma once said on a different subject: “To distinguish between atrocities does not diminish the horror, but without clarity on these matters history recedes into myth and becomes a form of propaganda.”

The most authoritative study on the famine is Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone, which has a broader and deeper perspective. The Chinese language edition of the book was published in Hong Kong two years before Dikötter’s, and an English version is due out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in fall 2012.

(Read the complete review at LOSANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS)