CHONGQING/BEIJING (Reuters) - The raucous diners in a hilltop restaurant in southwest China ignored a waiter’s request to quieten down after a complaint from a petite woman at a nearby table.
The woman made a phone call. Minutes later, a man stormed into the hotel restaurant, brandished his pistol and silenced the table of stunned drinkers who instantly recognised him.
He was Wang Lijun, police chief of Chongqing and an ally of the city’s ambitious Communist Party boss, Bo Xilai. The woman was Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, now a suspect in the murder of a British businessman, a crime that has upset China’s carefully managed leadership transition.
The incident unfolded in the same hotel in Chongqing where investigators believe the businessman, Neil Heywood, was poisoned in November.
Wang’s actions fitted a pattern of wild and flamboyant behaviour as recounted by those who know him and whose final, characteristically dramatic act blew the scandal into the open.
On February 6, Wang fled to a U.S. consulate in an apparent asylum attempt after he confronted Bo, sources say, with evidence implicating Gu in the death of Heywood, once a friend of the Bo family.
Wang spent about 24 hours inside the consulate before being collected by Chinese central government authorities. He could now face treason charges.
The rupture in his relations with Bo hastened the end of the career of a police officer whose methods in Chongqing, China’s biggest municipality, were decried by critics as brutal.
Wang was also eccentric: sources said he sometimes did his own post mortems, boasted of being an FBI agent under an exchange programme and of being kidnapped by the Italian mafia.
Gu had been dining with Wang’s wife at the time of the restaurant incident, which ended unhappily for the noisy table of drinkers who turned out to be off-duty police officers.
“Not realising who she and Wang Lijun’s wife were, the rowdy table ignored her. So Gu Kailai called Wang Lijun who drove up to the hotel himself and drew his gun on the rowdy table and told them that they hadn’t realised who they were dealing with,” said a source close to Chongqing officials.
“It was only then that Wang Lijun realised the rowdy drinkers were senior police from the Nan‘an district (of Chongqing),” said the source in an account backed by a second source who cited police descriptions of the incident.
Heads rolled. The two sources said officers at the restaurant table were removed from their posts.
The fracas happened long before Heywood’s death. The restaurant is at the Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel where Heywood’s body was found on November 15. Police believe he was poisoned after he threatened to expose a plan by Gu to move money abroad, Reuters has previously reported.
Gu and Wang are in custody and Bo has not been seen in public since March, when he was dismissed as boss of Chongqing. Last week, Bo was stripped of his seat on the Politburo, a major decision-making body under the more powerful Standing Committee.
Before his fall, Bo, 62, was seen as a contender for a post on the committee, China’s top leadership body, to be decided this year.
With Bo and Wang out of power, sources close to officials in Chongqing and Beijing are providing details about the man who served as Bo’s right-hand man in a widely publicised drive to sweep the city streets of triad gangs. They declined to be identified owing to the sensitivities of the scandal.
State media for years hailed the tens of thousands of arrests, the breakup of gangs and the exposure of corrupt police and officials, a campaign that helped build Bo’s popular support.
CHIEF WANG‘S COMING!
Even by the standards of Chinese police, Wang was known as an aggressive officer. He built his reputation in the northeast province of Liaoning, where Bo was governor in the early 2000s.
Wang, 52, is an ethnic Mongolian. His father was a railway worker and his mother a textile worker. He boxed as a teen, served in the People’s Liberation Army for three years and worked as a forestry official before becoming a policeman in 1984.
His crime crackdown in the northeast town of Tieling won him national acclaim. Zhou Lijun, a screenwriter, spent 10 days with Wang in Tieling in 1996 while working on a screenplay for a TV series about his exploits called “Iron Blooded Police Spirits”.
According to Zhou’s account in a Chinese newspaper, Wang had a flair for the dramatic. He would drive to crime scenes in a Mitsubishi jeep modified to carry a double rack of lights on its roof so the locals would know “Chief Wang” was on the case.
He would leap atop the car, draw his gun and fire shots in the air after arriving on the scene. On a night raid of hair salons thought to be fronts for prostitution, Wang rushed into one and threw a young man with dyed yellow hair to the ground.
After a police search for evidence yielded nothing, he told them to take the youth to the police station, saying, “A man with hair like that can’t be any good.”
I‘VE GOT A JOB FOR YOU
Bo brought in Wang to lead a crackdown on organised crime in Chongqing after he became the city’s Communist Party chief in 2007. The two men became close, said a source in Chongqing with access to city officials.
“The anti-organised crime campaign was like a two-man skit,” said the source. “But then they made the anti-crime campaign so complicated and turned it into a campaign, a movement, that was politicised and expanded, and then there were so many erroneous cases and cases of torture,” the source said.
Since the downfall of Bo and Wang, several people who were targets of that campaign have come forward with stories of intimidation, torture and forced confession.
Tales of yet more eccentricities emerged.
Wang would turn up at police stations deep in the night to catch officers sleeping, bawl them out and then storm out, said a Chinese businessman who met Wang several times at city functions. He also demanded continuous supplies of fresh flowers and towels, said another source with access to city officials.
A former colleague of Wang’s in northeast China said he would sometimes perform the autopsies on executed convicts himself because he claimed he wanted to see if “their hearts were black or red”.
As Wang’s crime crackdown grew, the campaign created enemies in the rank and file, as well as in leadership circles.
Wang’s dragnet led to the city’s former justice chief and deputy police chief, Wen Qiang, being executed in 2010 for protecting gangs, accepting bribes, rape and property scams. Wang also jailed dozens of policemen and defence lawyers in the name of cracking down on organised crime.
State media said he wore a bullet-proof vest after gangs put out a hit order on him.
More threatening was scrutiny from on high. Central government anti-graft investigators in 2011 began looking into accusations he accepted bribes from and promoted a subordinate when he was police chief of Tieling from 2000 to 2003, several sources said. Wang became anxious and sought help.
According to accounts previously reported by Reuters, Wang feared that Bo, keen to preserve his chances for promotion, would abandon him after authorities began probing Wang’s past.
Wang was extensively involved in bugging and surveillance using sophisticated equipment acquired as part of Chongqing’s campaign against organised crime, and also used those capabilities to monitor Bo and those around him, said a source in Beijing with close ties to officials. The official allegations against Bo, Gu and Wang have not mentioned any bugging accusations.
Late last year, problems with the Heywood case surfaced. Wang learnt that some of his officers were refusing to sign off on the police report, which said he had died of natural causes.
By January Wang had set up one of the special case teams that had come to symbolise Chongqing’s successes - and excesses - over the years.
It determined the death was abnormal and a poisoning. It also determined that Bo’s wife was a prime suspect.
On or about January 18, Wang took the case to Bo, who reacted angrily before agreeing to a police probe of his wife’s role in the murder.
Just days later, Bo abruptly reversed course and stripped Wang of his police chief post. Wang later made his run to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, near Chongqing, where he told American diplomats about the Heywood case, according to the British government which was briefed on this episode.
In Chongqing, word that Wang was taken from the consulate by central government officials was met with relief and even celebration from the rank and file of the city’s police, a source said.
“That night, all of the restaurants and karaoke parlours in Chongqing were full - and mostly with police officers.”
Additional reporting by Don Durfee in BEIJING, editing by Brian Rhoads and Mark Bendeich