CHENGDU, China — Rumors of a possible high-profile asylum attempt, purge or maybe just an awkwardly timed sick leave swirled Wednesday around a famous Chinese law enforcement official, in a case with possible implications for a rising star in China's national politics.
The official in question, Wang Lijun, led an immense crackdown on organized crime in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing in 2009 — an effort that received national acclaim and further raised the profile of the city's Chinese Communist Party secretary, Bo Xilai.
Bo, part of the so-called "princeling group" of second-generation Communist Party leaders, is widely seen as a leading candidate for a seat on the nation's ruling politburo standing committee in a scheduled changeover later this year.
Internet rumors swirled on Wednesday that Wang had unsuccessfully sought refuge at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, the nearest American diplomatic outpost. There was no evidence immediately available, however, of that being the case.
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The U.S. Embassy spokesman in Beijing, Richard Buangan, declined to comment on the issue.
However, online messages about rumors of Wang's defection, including pictures of Chinese policemen outside the U.S. consulate on Tuesday night, were allowed to linger on the Internet off and on throughout the day — a rarity in a nation with a censorship regime known for nipping politically sensitive material in the bud.
Then, as those posts were mounting, it emerged that the Chongqing government had publicly posted a statement saying that because of mental stress and health issues, Wang is currently "undergoing treatment" — the phrase used has been widely translated as "vacation-style treatment."
The uncertainty about what happened with — or to — Wang Lijun says much about the opaque nature of Chinese politics, especially during a year in which different factions are thought to be vying for power ahead of the politburo shift.
Could a scandal embroiling someone so closely associated with Bo affect his chances for promotion? Might it be a sign that Bo is cutting strings to former allies? Or, perhaps, was the 52-year-old Wang merely taking some much-needed rest?
On Wednesday afternoon, the scene outside the U.S. consulate in Chengdu seemed normal.
Interviews with shopkeepers in the area suggested the police presence there Tuesday evening might have been less overwhelming than presented by Internet reports. A clerk at a nearby drug store, who did not want her name published because it wasn't clear what had happened, said that while there were police cars parked on the street outside the consulate, the road was not closed to traffic.
A saleswoman at a clothing shop a few doors down gave a similar account.
It wasn't possible to verify their version of events, however.
Asked about reports that the U.S. consulate had been surrounded by Chinese security the night before, Buangan, the embassy spokesman, said in an email, "We cannot comment on issues regarding the security of diplomatic facilities."
He added, "The U.S. government did not request any increased security around the consulate."
Eyebrows already were raised after the Chongqing government recently said that Wang, the city's vice mayor, was being moved from police work to economic affairs, and then shifted to an even vaguer portfolio involving education.
Wang arguably is one of the nation's most famous crime-busters. The tales of his and Bo Xilai's work to smash the gangs of Chongqing were reportedly slated for immortalization in an official multi-volume book series and a movie.
His prestige as a tough cop in the Gotham-like megacity of Chongqing was widely seen as boosting Bo, a controversial figure whose ambition and promotion of Mao Zedong-era "red culture" slogans is said to have made some Chinese officials nervous.
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