Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan are preparing to try a former provincial police chief at the heart of a recent political scandal for treason, Hong Kong media reported.
Wang Lijun, whose Feb. 6 flight to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu sparked the biggest political scandal to engulf the communist leadership in decades could face trial on treason charges as early as next month, according to the English-language South China Morning Post.
Wang, once the municipal police chief and right-hand-man of Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, was well-known for orchestrating city-wide anti-mafia campaigns which some have denounced as targeting powerful entrepreneurs with torture and forced confessions simply to confiscate their assets.
Wang could potentially face the death penalty if convicted of treason, but the lack of violence involved suggests a possible jail term instead, experts told the paper.
Bo, a former rising political star who had been widely expected to ascend to the all-powerful nine-member Politburo standing committee later this year, was ousted over a scandal involving alleged murder and corruption.
Bo and Wang are reportedly under investigation for "serious discipline violations" at an unknown location, while Bo's wife Gu Kailai has been named as a suspect in the alleged murder of British businessman Neil Heywood last November, and is also under investigation.
According to documents purportedly leaked from top-secret government meetings and posted online, Wang is believed to have confronted Bo with information related to the murder before fleeing to the consulate, where he spent several hours before leaving under escort by central Party investigators.
Bo's fall prompted rampant political rumors on the Chinese Internet of a coup involving his highest political backer and top security official Zhou Yongkang.
Experts said on Sunday that Zhou's days in politics are now numbered as he prepares for retirement in the wake of the fall of ousted former Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai.
Zhou was chosen to represent Communist Party delegates for the northwestern region of Xinjiang on Friday at the forthcoming 18th Party Congress later this year, where a key leadership transition is expected.
Political commentators said that the move was highly unusual and may indicate that Zhou's political star is rapidly waning in the wake of Bo's fall.
"This is very different to the usual procedures followed by the Party," said Xie Jiaye, head of the California-based America-China Association for Science & Technology Exchange. "Previously, Zhou Yongkang has attended the Party Congress as a delegate from Hebei."
Xie said Zhou's selection as Congress delegate for Hebei might have been opposed by local Party members, giving a rare glimpse into factional strife currently besetting China's ruling Communist Party ahead of the expected handover of power to the next generation of leaders.
Zhou will retire at the forthcoming 18th Party Congress, the timing of which is typically announced nearer the date of the meeting, but has now been reported in official media as likely to take place "in the second half of the year."
"As for whether they will pursue him after his retirement, I think that they probably won't," Xie said.
Professor Xia Ming, a political science teacher at the College of Staten Island in New York, said Zhou's selection as delegate for Xinjiang indicates that his political position is now under threat and that his supporters will likely lose favor in the bid for the next set of top jobs.
"It is an open secret in China that what Bo Xilai did meant that he must have the backing of those higher up," Xia said. "It is clear that the relationship between [Bo and Zhou] was very close."
"I think that as soon as they have wrapped up Bo Xilai's case, the next person in line should be Zhou Yongkang."
Reported by Yang Jiadai for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.