For the first time, Chinese state media appear to have implicated fallen Communist Party official Bo Xilai in the murder scandal that has gripped the country, reporting that he angrily rebuked the local police chief when told that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was a suspect in the case.
The blow-by-blow account published Wednesday by the official New China News Agency does not mention Bo by name. However, the lengthy account of a trial tied to the murder says "the then leading official of the Communist Party of China Chongqing Committee" -- widely understood to mean Bo -- reacted furiously after then-Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun told him Gu was a suspect, according to witnesses.
Wang "had his ears boxed," according to translations of the Chinese report by Reuters and the Associated Press. An English version of the official news agency report said he was "slapped in the face by the official."
Gu was convicted last month of poisoning British businessman Neil Heywood. Wang went on trial this week on charges of taking bribes and "bending the law for selfish ends," despite his apparent role in cracking the case. Prosecutors said that years earlier Wang had improperly accepted bribes worth about $484,127.
Bo has not yet faced criminal charges in the tangled case, but was stripped of his position as Chongqing Communist Party secretary and later kicked out of the Politburo for "serious disciplinary violations."
The evident reference to Bo in the New China News Agency report has stirred up new speculation about his fate, which hangs over the upcoming Communist Party Congress. The fallen politician was barely mentioned when his wife was tried.
Friction rose between Wang and Gu, however, after the latter told others about the killing, frustrating the police chief, the state news agency reported. Wang then told Bo that Gu was suspected in the case and spurred Chongqing police to re-interview witnesses and "reorganize the evidence," it said.
After Wang lost one of his posts and fellow staffers were put under "illegal investigation," Wang came to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu seeking asylum, saying his life was in danger, the news agency reported. The scandalous case became public soon after, rocking the country with its lurid allegations.
Besides bringing Bo into the story, the new account also conflicts with statements by the U.S. State Department, which said Wang never sought asylum before voluntarily leaving the Chengdu consulate.
As the investigation continued, Wang, in turn, faced accusations of abusing power in earlier incidents. He was accused of accepting two Beijing apartments and a payment from business officials in 2008 and 2009, then freeing several people in detention when requested by the officials, state media reported.
Wang also stands accused of failing to properly investigate the Heywood murder, but because he played a vital role in cracking the case, his punishment might be lighter, prosecutors said to the news agency.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Chinese television shows former police chief Wang Lijun facing the court during his trial in Chengdu. Credit: AFP / CCTV