The episode in which a former top Chinese law enforcement officer sought sanctuary in a U.S. diplomatic mission this month is unprecedented and may have provided the Americans with detailed information about organized crime in China and its alleged links to the corridors of power, experts and officials say.
Beijing has been embarrassed by the country's most celebrated cop Wang Lijun's overnight stay at the U.S. Consulate in southwestern Sichuan's capital Chengdu in an apparent bid to safeguard his own life from powerful groups, according to the experts.
No Chinese government official had sought sanctuary at a U.S diplomatic mission in China until Wang's Feb. 6 visit to the consulate, where he is believed to have provided loads of evidence on state links to notorious organized crime groups, diplomatic sources said.
Wang, the top police officer in Chongqing, about 200 miles (330 kilometers) from Chengdu, until he was mysteriously removed in early February, spent the night in the U.S. Consulate, Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.
"This, of course, is utterly unprecedented," said John Tkacik, a retired senior U.S. diplomat whose 25-year service was mostly linked to China affairs.
"I have no recollection of any Chinese government official ever sort of going to the U.S. Consulate and staying overnight anytime," he told RFA.
The only other Chinese citizens who had sought asylum at a U.S. diplomatic mission in China were Fang Lizhi, a dissident physicist and mentor to the student protestors at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and his wife. They now live in exile in the United States.
Tkacik, who had served at the U.S. Consulate in southern Guangzhou city during the time Fang was in protective custody in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, believes that Wang's episode has enabled the U.S. government to probably learn far more than it ever knew before about the nature of organized crime in China.
"I think it would be very helpful to educate the American government in understanding the extent to which organized crime has penetrated the highest levels of the Chinese government and the [ruling Chinese Communist] party," he said.
Wang, a 52-year-old ethnic Mongolian, was the right hand man of powerful Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai and took on mafia-type gangs, including high-level party officials accused of shielding crime lords, in a campaign that drew national focus.
His anti-graft campaign had led to the arrest of more than 5,700 people over the last two years and the seizure of U.S. $11 billion dollars in illicit funds, according to a local Chongqing daily.
But on Feb. 2, Bo—the son of a revolutionary leader and contender for the highest level nine-member national party leadership—abruptly fired Wang as police chief although he remained vice-mayor.
Wang fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu for protection. He was pursued by carloads of Chongqing armed police who surrounded the diplomatic mission until Beijing ordered their withdrawal and sent a top security official to escort him to the Chinese capital, reports said.
Wang supplied the consulate with a stack of documents related to corruption within the highest ranks of the party, including information about Bo, according to two U.S. officials, the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news site, reported.
The whole issue unfolded the week before Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is expected to be elevated to party chief at the end of the year, arrived for a U.S. visit.
"The incident has upset the arrangement of the power transition forthcoming in the 18th Party Congress later this year," said Gao Wenqian, senior policy adviser at Human Rights in China, a New York-based group.
It has also brought "great embarrassment" to the party because an internal political fight has surfaced as an "international incident," Gao said.
The incident, Gao added, has caused "the complete bankruptcy of the 'core socialist values' which have been carefully-crafted and vigorously-promoted by the authorities.
"Think: a high-sounding senior government official from a 'red Chongqing' had to seek help from the U.S. Consulate! Who would still believe in these 'core values'?"
The U.S. State Department acknowledged that Wang spent the night at the consulate and left the building "of his own volition" but did not provide other details.
The department also said it was working on a request from the U.S. Congress for all cables, email and other correspondence involving the Chengdu consulate incident, including whether Washington denied asylum to Wang.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Feb. 10, said reports had implied that Wang may have been denied a request for asylum after Chinese authorities learned of his attempted defection and police and security forces surrounded the consulate.
“These reports raise questions about whether Mr. Wang sought asylum protection from the United States and, if so, what steps were taken to secure U.S. national interests and Mr. Wang’s personal safety,” the letter said.
American diplomats told the New York Times that Wang talked with consular officials and inquired about the possibility of political asylum which was rebuffed by a Washington reluctant to upset bilateral ties on the eve of Xi's visit.
The Times also quoted other sources in China as saying that Wang's chief goals were to seek refuge from Bo and make clear to him that "incriminating knowledge or evidence" had been passed on.
Tkacik believes that if Wang becomes a scapegoat in any bid by the Chinese leadership to hush up the issue, the country's image could suffer.
"If they do that, the Americans may be left with only one conclusion: the entire Chinese politburo and standing committee are run by organized crime members."