A key deputy to Bo Xilai, the Chongqing Communist party secretary who has been tipped for a top position in China’s upcoming political transition, has been put on leave, the Chongqing government said Wednesday, prompting speculation of internal dissent among the top ranks of the southwestern city’s leadership. Chongqing vice mayor and former police chief Wang Lijun, 52, is undergoing “vacation-style treatment” due to his heavy workload and stress, the city government announced in a one-line statement on its official microblog. That announcement late Wednesday morning came hours after Chinese police surrounded the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, a city about 200 miles from Chongqing, which touched off widespread rumors on Chinese microblogs that Wang had sought asylum. U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Buangan told Reuters he was “not in a position to comment regarding reported requests for asylum.” He added that “there was no threat to the (Chengdu) consulate yesterday, and the U.S. government did not request increased security around the compound,” Reuters reported.
Update: U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday that Wang had requested a meeting with the Chengdu consulate that he attended on Monday, then left “of his own volition.” Nuland didn’t describe what was discussed at the meeting and declined to comment on whether Wang requested asylum.
Wang’s case comes not only as China prepares to begin a once-in-a-decade leadership transition this fall, but as Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to assume the top leadership position, prepares to head to the United States next week, adding to the sensitive timing of the case. Wang was a top law enforcement officer during a massive crackdown on organized crime launched by Bo in 2009 that saw more than 1,500 arrested. Wang’s predecessor, former police chief Wen Qiang, was removed as part of the campaign and executed for corruption in 2010. The assault on Chongqing’s gangs won widespread public support in the city and helped elevate the profile of both Bo and Wang. “Without Bo Xilai or Wang Lijun, there would be no hope for our family,” a Chongqing farmer whose son was killed in a clash with thugs told TIME in 2010. “The protective network of gangsters is very big.” For Bo the tough stand on crime and subsequent promotion of Mao-era “red culture” helped improve his prospects for promotion later this year, when the Communist Party chooses its new leadership. Bo is now considered a favorite for a seat on the Politburo’s standing committee, China’s top ruling body, a position for which he had previously been considered a long shot.
But Wang’s sudden removal could take some of the shine of Bo. Already many Chinese have joked online about Wang’s euphemistic sounding condition. “The motherland’s linguistic culture has truly been made unceasingly abundant by officialdom,” wrote one person on Sina Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like service. “We don’t know when or how Wang Zhijun’s ‘vacation-style treatment’ will end. I’m waiting.”
State media has previously called Wang an “anti-corruption iron hero” who bears more than 20 scars on his body from run-ins with criminals during a 28-year police career. On Feb. 2 the local government announced that he was being removed from his position as head of the Chongqing Public Security Bureau and would be shifted to handling economic matters. That statement was later amended to say he would handle responsibilities including education, science, intellectual property, industry and commerce and sports. But Wednesday’s announcement signaled that he won’t be taking up those new tasks.