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Brewing China scandal could be a reality check for Harper

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers his speech in Guangzhou, China, Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.

Kin Cheung/AP/Kin Cheung/AP

It's the biggest political scandal to hit China in years, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper is landing in the middle of it.

Bo Xilai, the charismatic and controversial Communist Party boss of Chongqing – the last stop on Mr. Harper's five-day, three-city visit to China – was until this week seen as a rising political star, all but certain to be promoted to the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo during a once-in-a-decade transfer of power that begins this fall.

Then came the disappearance of his right-hand man, the former police chief and deputy mayor of Chongqing, Wang Liqun, in a cloak-and-dagger mystery worthy of a Cold War thriller. The swirling intrigue may dash Mr. Bo's hopes of reaching the pinnacle of power, while providing a grim reminder of the opaque and sometimes-dangerous ways power works in this authoritarian state.

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His whereabouts unknown, Mr. Wang is under police investigation and on what state media have called "vacation-style treatment." The forced hiatus comes after he made a mysterious, unsanctioned visit on Monday to the United States consulate in Chengdu, several hours' drive west of Chongqing.

The reasons why Mr. Wang went into the consulate – and what he said to the diplomats stationed there – have not been revealed. The consulate was surrounded by dozens of police vehicles and roadblocks were set up until Mr. Wang emerged and gave himself up. "He did visit the consulate and he later left the consulate of his own volition," a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department confirmed.

As of Friday night, Mr. Harper and Mr. Bo were still expected to meet on Saturday. However, getting to know the man behind the so-called Chongqing model – known for its Mao-inspired politics and successes in fighting organized crime – may be less relevant than before the caper at the U.S. consulate.

The Chinese Internet is alive with rumours about what materials Mr. Wang might have given the Americans relating to Mr. Bo. Unlike most sensitive topics, online discussion of the case has not been thoroughly censored. Mr. Wang's disappearance has also been given prominent coverage in the state-controlled media.

Wu Jiaxiang, a former researcher for the Central Committee of the Communist Party who is now an independent academic, said the lack of censorship means that some in Beijing are happy to leave the controversial Mr. Bo twisting in the wind. "Wang is just a pawn," he said.

After Mr. Wang's arrest, a letter attributed to him was posted online; it warned that if Mr. Bo rises to power in Beijing, "it will lead to calamity for China and disaster for our nation."

"When everyone sees this letter, I'll either be dead or have lost my freedom," reads the letter, dated three days before Mr. Wang entered the U.S. consulate.

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Mr. Wang's political career is almost certainly now over, and questions are swirling around Mr. Bo as well. The two made headlines first for smashing Chongqing's crime syndicates and introducing "red culture" campaigns that were imbued with nostalgia for the supposedly purer days of Mao Zedong.

It became known as the Chongqing model, and Mr. Bo was the darling of the country's political left. Whispers abounded that parts of the Chongqing model would be implemented at the national level if Mr. Bo were promoted to the Standing Committee.

Now, some believe Mr. Bo's path to power is far less clear. "It's basically impossible for him to join the Standing Committee of Politburo" after this incident, said Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at Renmin University in Beijing. "[Wang Liqun]is a symbol of Chongqing Model. He was the core member of Bo's team. The Chongqing Model with its Maoist symbols is now basically bankrupt."

The Prime Minister met Friday with Wang Yang, the Communist Party boss in coastal Guangdong province and another rising political star who is considered a contender to join the Standing Committee of the Politburo this fall, when seven of its current nine members are due to retire.

Canadian officials said Mr. Harper and Mr. Wang discussed political reforms in the province, including the recent unrest in the village of Wukan, a rare instance of people power in China that saw villagers take to the streets to oust leaders they saw as corrupt and then hold their own elections. Mr. Wang has won plaudits for siding with the villagers in the dispute.

The episode in Chongqing, however, may provide a reality check for the Prime Minister about the system and people he's making deals with as he seeks to strengthen Canada's economic ties with China by lifting barriers to trade and investment.

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In a speech Friday to an audience of Canadian and Chinese businesspeople in Guangzhou, Mr. Harper said that Canada would continue to press for greater rights and freedoms here as the economic relationship deepened.

"Canadians believe, and have always believed, that the kind of mutually beneficial economic relationship we seek is also compatible with a good and frank dialogue on fundamental principles such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of belief and worship," he said.

"And they demand that their government – and their businesses – uphold these national characteristics in all our dealings."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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