BEIJING - A deputy mayor of Chongqing in southwest China went on leave, the city government said on Wednesday, in the wake of feverish talk on the Chinese Internet that he faced a corruption probe and might even have sought refuge at a US consulate.
That speculation could not be confirmed. Yet, even if unfounded, the lurid rumours surrounding deputy mayor Wang Lijun could embarrass the Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, who is widely seen as pushing for 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-organised 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.
Wang, 52, was reassigned last week from overseeing public security - where he was closely associated with a high-profile crackdown on organised crime - to overseeing education, science, environmental protection and other areas.
The move fanned rumours on Chinese microblogs that he was under investigation by the authorities for corruption.
"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 treatment," 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 had sought asylum at the US consulate in Chengdu in southwest Sichuan province, several hours' drive from Chongqing, prompting police to gather around the consulate.
The consulate referred questions to the US Embassy in Beijing, where the 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 US government did not request increased security around the compound," said Buangan.