CHENGDU, China -- China opened the trial for an ex-police chief at the center of the country's worst political scandal in decades, unexpectedly staging a closed-door hearing Monday, a day earlier than publicly announced.
Authorities justified the closed proceedings by saying state secrets were being discussed in the trial of Wang Lijun, who is charged with defection, abuse of power and other crimes.
"It was closed according to Chinese law because it involves state secrets," said defense lawyer Wang Yuncai, who is not related to her client.
On Tuesday, the court is scheduled to hold the previously announced public portion of the trial -- though foreign media won't be allowed in -- and the hearing is expected to go over allegations of bribe-taking and other charges.
The trial was the latest wrinkle in the bizarre months-long scandal that started when Wang fled to the U.S. Consulate in February and divulged the murder of a British businessman. It resulted in the removal of his boss, senior politician Bo Xilai, from the communist leadership and the roiling of the Communist Party leadership as it prepares a delicate transfer of power to younger leaders.
During his 33-hour stay at the consulate, Wang claimed that Bo's wife was involved in the murder. Apparently unable to get asylum in the U.S., Wang turned himself over to a senior state security official from Beijing. Months later Bo's wife was convicted of the murder, after she confessed in court.
Monday's hearing involved two of the charges against Wang and appeared to center on events in the consulate and the potential cover-up. The Intermediate Court in the central city of Chengdu heard the charges of defection and abuse of power and touched on state secrets, said Wang, his lawyer.
Putting Wang on trial is a next step for China's leadership in moving past the scandal and dealing with the stickiest issue: whether to expel Bo from the party and prosecute him. Proof that the scandal's fallout continues to dog Chinese leaders is that they have yet to announce a date for a party congress to install the new leadership, though it is expected in mid- to late October.
Wang's almost certain conviction marks the downfall of a prominent, colorful police chief, who often skirted the law he made a flamboyant show of enforcing. Worries about Wang's renegade behavior likely prompted Chinese leaders to order the closed hearing, said Dali Yang, director of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing.
"Wang Lijun, by walking into the U.S. consulate, showed that he does not play by the book. It was a surprise move to Bo and to the party. He might not be as easy to control," said Yang.
A career policeman of more than two decades, Wang made a name for himself as a gang-buster in a northeastern province, where he met Bo, then a fast-rising politician who, as the son of a revolutionary veteran, had a web of political contacts. The two rode to national fame together, launching a high-profile sweep against organized crime in Chongqing, an inland megacity where Bo had been named party chief.
In magazine cover stories and on television news, Wang was depicted as someone willing to tackle vested interests. Hundreds of gangsters, police and officials were prosecuted, and among the 13 people executed was the head of the city's justice bureau. Behind the headlines, the use of torture to extract confessions and arrests to pressure businessmen to steer deals toward Bo and his allies created enemies at the highest levels.
His excesses would likely have not gotten him into trouble had he not embarrassed the ruling elite by going to the U.S. Consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu and divulging information the party would prefer be handled in secret. Wang's trial is expected to be quick; the charges against the youthful looking 52-year-old each carry 10-year maximums, though the law provides for lengthier sentences for egregious violations.
In history "until relatively recently, he who lived by the sword often perished by the sword. Wang Lijun is facing an outcome along that line," said Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in Britain. "He, being somebody who has a long record of not delivering justice while in a position requiring him to do so, to end up facing the same fate, I would call it `poetic injustice'."
Long before his surprise flight to the consulate, Wang displayed a penchant for drama and obsessive police work. He invented law enforcement tools and filed patents for them: adjustable poles for mounting surveillance cameras, reflective jackets, boots for female officers, a battery-powered fan-cooled police helmet for Chongqing's muggy summers and a streetlamp that also serves as a closed-circuit camera.
As a senior police officer in the northeastern city of Tieling, he drove a jeep that he had modified to carry two rows of lamps on its roof so that when he arrived anywhere, "everyone would know that `Chief Wang is here,"' wrote screenwriter Zhou Lijun, who spent time with Wang after being tasked by the government to make a TV series about him in 1996.
Wang would jump on the roof of a police car and fire a warning shot into the air with his gun when dealing with small-time criminals, Zhou wrote.
It is not clear why Wang fled to the consulate, though he had recently been sidelined by Bo in a sign of strained relations between them. In January, Bo had him removing him as police chief and giving him a less powerful post as vice mayor in charge of sports.
In a report on his indictment two weeks ago, the official Xinhua News Agency said that Wang knew Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was suspected in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood over a business dispute but that he "neglected his duty and bent the law for personal gain" to cover up for Gu.
At the trial last month after which Gu received a suspended death sentence, prosecutors said Gu conferred with Wang before murdering Heywood and reported back to him afterward, said a lawyer who attended the trial. The lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Wang recorded the conversations, which were used as evidence against Gu.
"When Gu Kailai was trying to decide on when to carry out the murder, she and Wang Lijun met to discuss this. But in the end, Wang Lijun became the whistleblower," said the lawyer.