How China's Bo affair rattled the White House

Chinese official who fled to US consulate after Briton's mystery death caused diplomatic frenzy

The long tendrils of the mystery surrounding the death a British businessman in China last autumn reached all the way to the White House.

Details emerged yesterday of the diplomatic frenzy that ensued when a former protégé of the disgraced Communist Party chief Bo Xilai sought protection from a US consulate in Chengdu at the beginning of February.

The appearance at the consulate's gates of Wang Lijun, a former police chief in Chongqing, China's biggest metropolis, bearing documents believed to have contained incriminating information about Mr Bo, caught US diplomats by surprise. During a frantic 36 hours, the New York Times reported, US officials in China, at the State Department in Washington and at the White House tried to decide what to do with him.

During all this time, the consulate was surrounded by throngs of security guards apparently deployed by Mr Bo to take Mr Wang into custody. Instead, the US decided eventually to hand him over to Chinese authorities in Beijing, turning down his request that he be granted asylum. The decision to deny him sanctuary in the US was being questioned by some on Capitol Hill last night. Mr Bo, who was the high-flying provincial Communist Party head and a candidate for a place on the Politburo in Beijing, has since been stripped of his posts and disgraced under suspicion of corruption. His wife, Gu Kailai, has been detained, along with a former family assistant, under suspicion of involvement in the murder of the British businessman, Neil Heywood.

Responding in part to pressure from the British Government, Beijing yesterday again undertook to "thoroughly investigate" an affair that has already become a serious international embarrassment as well as time bomb at the heart of a party that strives to project an image of purity and rectitude to its citizenry.

Mr Wang declined to hand over the documents about Mr Bo to the US officials but did embark on long, confusing rants about corruption and general malfeasance in the provincial party, leaving diplomats in a state of consternation. Since being handed over, Mr Wang has vanished and may face charges of divulging state secrets to a foreign power which is punishable by death.

If US officials have hitherto been coy about the incident, it is hardly surprising. Washington has enough trouble handling its relationship with China without becoming embroiled in the Bo-Heywood affair. Mr Wang presented himself at the consulate just one week before a long-scheduled and delicate visit to the US by the likely future leader of China, Xi Jinping.

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