Gu Suhua writes from Beijing: Leon Panetta, US Defence Secretary, is in town. Besides calling for closer Sino-American military relations, he is warning that the territorial conflicts between China and its neighbours could escalate. Cool heads are needed to bring down the temperature of protests and find a solution. The ongoing demonstrations against Japan show no sign of abating. Symbolically September 18th is the anniversary of the Mukden incident. This occurred in 1931 when Japanese soldiers blew up part of the South Manchurian Railway, then owned by Japan. They blamed it on terrorists but it was used as a pretext to invade Manchuria. The current anti-Japanese fury has led to companies such as Panasonic and Canon suspending operations.
The trial of Wang Lijun has just begun. An ethnic Mongol, he was police chief in Chongqing when Bo Xilai was Party secretary there. He reported to Bo about the activities of his wife, Gu Kailai. The latter was implicated in the murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman, in a hotel room in Chongqing last November. She was recently charged with murder, found guilty and sent to prison. Wang, after discovering that Bo took unkindly to the information which he imparted, took fright and eventually ended up at the US consulate in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. He requested political asylum but after debriefing him, the Americans turned him over to officers of the Ministry of State Security, or secret police.
Wang’s trial will not last long as he has pleaded guilty to all charges. When Gu Kailai did likewise her trial did not even last a day. Wang has obviously confessed in order to get a lighter sentence. Technically, he is guilty of treason and the penalty for that is death. Bo will not face a public trial. He will appear before a Party disciplinary committee.
Wang was close to Bo. The latter had contacts with high ranking Party and military figures. The sentence handed down to Wang will be examined closely. Will the leadership risk the death sentence at a time when it is preparing for the 18th Party Congress next month?
Another question surfaces here: why has the dispute with Japan surfaced now? After all, the disagreement over the sovereignty of the islands in the China Sea has been ongoing for decades. Is there an attempt to deflect attention from the deteriorating state of the economy in China? Mobilise the population in protest against an external foe in order to bind people together. Very communist, that. The nation is entering choppy waters so the ship of state has to be steadied. Criticism of the government because of economic hardships can be presented as anti-patriotic.
Why hold the trial of Wang Lijun now? Why not wait till after the Congress and the change of personnel in the Party and government? It could then be given low profile treatment. Wang, to be truthful, had no confidence in Chinese justice. Instead he headed for the protection of the US authorities. This was a loss of face for the Chinese legal system.
Again the trial may be seen as a signal that the authorities will deal severely with any dissent. If the anti-Japanese demonstrations and the trial of Wang can be interpreted as above, the conclusion is that the Middle Kingdom’s rulers foresee serious economic problems in the near future. Batten down the hatches is the message.