Wang Lijun Affair Shows Value of US Presence Abroad

On the evening of February 6, when a former lieutenant to one of China’s dirtiest officials sought a quick escape from what he figured would be certain death at the hands of his former boss, he jumped into his car and drove four hours to the US consulate in Chengdu.

Why Chengdu? It’s the nearest city with a US consulate. The other options would have been the main US embassy in Beijing, or one of the other consulates, located in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenyang — all of which are much farther away.

Oddly, Chongqing — the mega-municipality of nearly 30 million people of which Wang had been police chief until being fired a week earlier by Bo — doesn’t have a US consulate though it is China’s largest city. Chengdu is the nation’s 4th largest city with just under 15 million but is considered a more cosmopolitan town than Chongqing. That may be a holdover from its time as the capital, and later, the summer palace, of the Mongol emperor Kublai Kahn who ruled China during much of the 13th century. Chengdu is considered by many to be China’s most beautiful city, especially after Kublai Kahn lavished it with elaborate construction projects, including an elegant palace that inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium dream of a poem which begins, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree.”

To this day Chengdu remains more of a center of international culture for China’s heartland than Chongqing. That’s why it’s the location of not only a US consulate (at No. 4 Lingshiguan Road, Section 4, in the city’s international Renmin Nalu quarter) but also the consulates of Germany, S. Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Pakistan.

So once Wang made up his mind to seek refuge in a consulate in Chengdu, he had a few options. But most people with any geopolitical sense would agree with Wang’s choice. None of the other nations would have seemed to have the stature, or the image of commitment to humanitarian principles, to provide asylum in the face of what Wang surely expected would be a heated push by Bo’s powerful security forces to secure his quick return before he spilled too many beans about Bo’s shenanigans.

As it turned out, the US didn’t provide Wang the asylum he sought either. But that small office of 30 employees — minus the consul general who was out of the area — did defy the siege by Bo’s posse of 70 armored vehicles and hundreds of heavily armed soldiers for over a day until the central government could send its own security officers to take custody of Wang, at least ensuring his escape from Bo’s perilous clutches and, just as importantly, documenting for all the world the fact that Beijing’s bosses had taken custody of Wang.

Had the US not shone as a humanitarian beacon in the eyes of even a notorious oppressor like Wang or invested in maintaining that modest presence in China’s heartland, Wang’s wealth of knowledge of the obscene abuses of power by Bo, public security chief Zhou Yongkang and others would never have become so compellingly documented. That timely role the small US consular office was able to perform at the critical moment has essentially forced Beijing’s bosses to shift the nation toward the high road by committing to further reforms needed to address such gross and rampant corruption, as was spelled out by Wen Jiabao in an essay published Tuesday in various state-run media.

It’s easy for us, sitting securely in a nation ruled for the most part by laws and not by avarice or venality, to ridicule the ways in which our government often fails to achieve its ends in dealings with tyrants and oppressors. But the drama of a once-powerful Chinese official like Wang Lijun turning to the nearest US consulate for asylum, and the cascading effect it’s having on the direction of the world’s most populous nation, shows the importance of our nation’s role as a haven of integrity in a largely unprincipled world.