The deputy mayor of Chongqing, a major city in southwestern China, has taken a leave from his job amid rumors that he tried to seek asylum at a U.S. consulate.
Chongqing officials posted a short, cryptic message on a microblog — the Chinese equivalent of Twitter — on Wednesday, saying that Wang Lijun was “receiving a vacation-style treatment” for overwork and mental stress. Several other Chinese microblogs speculated that Wang, a former city police chief, had sought to defect and posted pictures purportedly showing police surrounding the U.S. consulate in nearby Chengdu on Tuesday night.
The episode drew unusual attention because Wang has close ties to Bo Xilai, Chongqing’s charismatic Communist Party chief and a rising star within the party who has been campaigning for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee. A key part of Bo’s appeal involves his high-profile crackdown on crime and corruption in recent years.
Wang played an integral role in that effort, in which police arrested several alleged criminal leaders while confiscating drugs and guns.
The U.S. State Department confirmed Wednesday that Wang had requested and attended a meeting Monday at the Chengdu consulate, but U.S. officials would not comment on whether he sought asylum.
“He did visit the consulate, and he later left the consulate of his own volition,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Responding to online reports that Wang was forced to leave the consulate or dragged out, she said, “He walked out. It was his choice.”
At a news briefing in Beijing on Thursday morning, Cui Tiankai, the vice foreign minister in charge of U.S. affairs, declined to offer specifics about Wang’s visit to the U.S. consulate, but, he said, the upcoming visit to Washington by Vice President Xi Jinping would not be affected by the incident.
Asked later to elaborate, Cui said, “This issue has been resolved, and resolved quite smoothly.”
It was unclear whether Wang’s departure resulted from a falling out between him and Bo. It was also unclear how the episode involving Wang could affect Bo’s political aspirations. Bo has pursued the Politburo seat with the zeal of a Western-style populist, most notably through “red culture,” a revival of socialist songs and culture from Mao Zedong’s time.
Staff writer Keith Richburg in Beijing contributed to this report.
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