BEIJING — A former police chief whose flight to a U.S. consulate set off China's biggest political scandal in years has been charged with crimes including defection and bribe taking, possibly indicating the turbulent affair is moving closer to a resolution before a key national leadership transition this fall.
Wednesday evening's announcement by state media of the charges against Wang Lijun came hours before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ended a brief visit to Beijing, and it was likely timed to convey to Washington that China's government is in full control and would strongly object to any foreign involvement in its internal politics.
Wang, the former police chief and vice mayor of the southwestern city of Chongqing, was also charged with "bending the law for selfish ends" and abuse of power, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Wang set off the scandal by fleeing to the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu in early February after being summarily demoted by the city's powerful Communist Party boss, Bo Xilai. Xinhua said the charges were brought by prosecutors in Chengdu, indicating that is where the trial will be held.
During his overnight stay at the U.S. consulate, Wang expressed to the Americans his concerns about the death of British businessman Neil Heywood in Chongqing last November. That prompted the British embassy to request a new investigation, which uncovered that he had been murdered. The case resulted in Bo's dismissal in March and the conviction last month of Bo's wife Gu Kailai for poisoning Heywood, a former family associate with whom Gu had reportedly feuded about money.
Gu was given a suspended death sentence while Bo remains under investigation by the ruling party's disciplinary branch for unspecified grave violations of discipline. Three leading Chongqing police officers and a Bo family aide were also sentenced as accomplices in the murder and subsequent cover-up.
Citing the indictment, Xinhua said Wang had left his post without authorization and defected to the consulate, but did not say whether he made a direct request for asylum, something U.S. diplomats say they would not have been able to grant.
Initially, critics of the Obama administration questioned whether it had let go a valuable defector. As a matter of policy, U.S. only grants asylum in American territory or at ports of entry. Embassies and consulates can only offer temporary refuge. U.S. diplomats have said that the policy was explained to Wang, who spent much of his 33 hours in the consulate on the phone negotiating with officials in Beijing.
Although he faces years in prison, Wang avoided the more serious charge of treason. Unconfirmed reports said he had cooperated closely with investigators after leaving the consulate accompanied by agents from China's main intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security.
The indictment also said Wang knew that Gu was strongly suspected in Heywood's death, but "consciously neglected his duty and bent the law for personal gain" so she would not be held legally responsible. It said he abused his power in the exercise of police investigations and took advantage of his position to accept large amounts of bribes in return for granting favors.
The charismatic Bo had been one of China's most prominent politicians and was considered a candidate for the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee at the upcoming Communist Party national congress, held every five years.
His March downfall injected new uncertainty into the succession process, although any damage seems now to have been contained. Vice President Xi Jinping remains on track to take over from President Hu Jintao at the congress, where seven of the nine members of the Standing Committee are due to step down after reaching retirement age.
Wang had been Bo's right-hand man in Chongqing, spearheading a controversial crackdown on organized crime that critics say featured torture and other violations of procedure, as well as illegal confiscation of assets and the targeting of political opponents.
The two reportedly fell out after Wang brought up Heywood's murder with Bo, who was not called as a witness or otherwise implicated in Gu's murder trial.
Xinhua's report also did not mention Bo, though Wang's indictment would seem to clear the way for an announcement about Bo's fate, something that had been expected well before the party meeting that is believed to be scheduled for mid-October.
However, University of Miami China expert June Teufel Dreyer said authorities might be holding back in the face of a lack of consensus or uncertainty how to proceed within such a tight time frame.
"The door's still open to prosecute Bo at a future time, and it is possible that Wang's trial will attempt to draw Bo into the murder-cover up intrigue," Dreyer said.
"The more attention can be diverted from so high-level, and reputedly fairly popular, personage, the better," she said.