BEIJING The ambitious Communist Party chief of Chongqing in southwest China, Bo Xilai, was hit by a political storm on Wednesday after his deputy and long-time ally took "leave" amid rumors of infighting and even an attempted flight by the deputy to a U.S. consulate.
The Chongqing government said the deputy mayor Wang Lijun took "therapeutic" leave for overwork. But his abrupt departure after years of serving Bo fanned rumors that Wang sought refuge in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, several hours drive from Chongqing, after a falling out amid a corruption probe.
The speculation about Wang Lijun seeking refuge at the consulate could not be confirmed. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters he had "no information" about the rumors that the official had sought protection.
Even if the rumors are untrue, Wang's abrupt departure and the speculation it has fanned are likely to hurt his ambitious patron, the Communist Party chief of Chongqing, Bo Xilai. Bo is widely seen as seeking a spot in the party's next central leadership, to be settled by late 2012.
"This will be a big blow to Bo Xilai, because Wang was instrumental in his anti-organized crime campaign, and that was instrumental in building Bo's appeal in public opinion and even among officials," said Chen Ziming, an independent scholar who studies party politics.
"Now the hero of that campaign has turned into a scandal, so at the least that's a blow to Bo's public prestige," said Chen, a former political prisoner who lives in Beijing.
Bo previously served as a commerce minister, often jousting with Western trade officials, and was earlier the mayor of Dalian, a port city in northeast China.
His deputy Wang, 52, was reassigned last week from overseeing public security -- where he was closely associated with a high-profile crackdown on organized crime -- to overseeing education, science, environmental protection and other areas.
The move fanned rumors on Chinese microblogs that he was under investigation by the authorities for corruption, or that he fell out with Bo.
"It is understood that Deputy Mayor Wang Lijun, who has suffered overwork and immense mental stress for a long time, is seriously indisposed physically. He is currently undergoing a vacation-style therapy," the Chongqing information office said on its microblog.
On Wednesday, many Chinese microblog users scoffed at the statement and speculated that Wang had been purged. Some said Wang sought asylum at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in Sichuan province, prompting police to gather around the consulate.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu said he had no information about increased security around the consulate.
The consulate referred questions to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where spokesman Richard Buangan told Reuters he was "not in a position to comment regarding reported requests for asylum."
"I can tell you there was no threat to the (Chengdu) consulate yesterday, and the U.S. government did not request increased security around the compound," said Buangan.
KEY FIGURE IN ANTI-CRIME CAMPAIGN
The unconfirmed rumors about Wang's fall or flight come shortly before Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is due to visit the United States on a trip that will underscore his virtual certainty of succeeding Hu Jintao as top leader from late 2012.
Wang has been seen as the hatchet man of Bo, a charismatic politician who has encouraged a revival of socialist culture from the time of Mao Zedong while seeking to transform Chongqing's economy into a model of more equal growth.
He was a key figure in Bo's campaign against criminal gangs in the sprawling city-province, a drive welcomed by many residents, but criticized by some lawyers and commentators as a purge-like effort that trampled on legal protections and spared figures seen as enjoying protection.
Bo has been widely expected to be a contender for a place in the new lineup of Chinese leaders to be settled in a secretive process that culminates in a Communist Party Congress late in 2012 and a national parliament session in early 2013.
Bo is a "princeling," one of the sons and daughters of China's founding revolutionary elite. His populism has won many admirers among Chinese people, but his aura of ambition has also attracted critics.
A former Chongqing official told Reuters that Wang's abrupt and rumor-swathed departure could tarnish Bo's prospects.
"Their ties were like fish and water. Wang has been a close follower of Bo, important in implementing his will," said the official, who spoke on condition that his name not be used to avoid possible censure.
"It's hard to see what really lies behind all this," he added. "But it will be a serious problem for Bo Xilai. At the very least, it looks bad."
Wang's mobile phone was turned off on Wednesday. A Chongqing official contacted about Wang would not comment on the reports.
Wang rose through the ranks of police in his home region of Inner Mongolia and then Liaoning province in northeast China, where he became an ally of Bo. He was transferred to Chongqing in 2008, after Bo was sent there as party boss.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley, Sui-Lee Wee, Sabrina Mao, Sisi Tang in Hong Kong, Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Don Durfee and anjeev Miglani)