A top cop in China disappears. Medical leave or US asylum?

China's rumor mill is ablaze over the whereabouts of Wang Lijun, a top police chief in Chongqing who 'went on vacation-style treatment.' What happens next could be a blow to a top Communist Party contender. 

By , Staff writer

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    In this 2008 file photo, Chongqing city police chief Wang Lijun reacts during a press conference in the southwestern China city. Wang, the country's top police chief, has dropped from sight amid unconfirmed reports of a political scandal and a bid for US asylum.
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China’s most famous city police chief has disappeared less than a week after he was unexpectedly shunted from his job, sending a flurry of speculative reports across the Internet that he has sought asylum at a US consulate.

Wang Lijun, who led a high-profile crackdown on mafia gangs in the southwestern China mega-city of Chongqing three years ago, is a close ally of the city’s Communist Party secretary, Bo Xilai, one of China’s main contenders for a top spot in the party leadership as it prepares for a major transition later this year.

Mr. Wang’s fate is expected to shape Mr. Bo’s political future. Wang's removal from the police department and Internet rumors that he had requested political asylum at the US consulate in the city of Chengdu, near Chongqing, “is not good news for Bo,” says Wu Yue San Ren, an independent political commentator. “This will negatively impact Bo’s hopes of getting to the top,” Mr. Wu adds.

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Bo’s open ambition and flamboyant style – both unusual in Chinese politics – have earned him many enemies. In the run-up to next autumn’s Communist Party congress, which will choose the next nine-man Standing Committee to run China, contenders for the top jobs are thought to be jockeying fiercely behind the scenes for position.

Wang’s sudden fall from grace, Wu believes, could have been ordered from above in a dramatically public attack on his patron, Bo. “This sends an obvious signal” that Bo is under assault, he says. 

Wang hitched his wagon to Bo’s rising political star when he was a policeman in the northern province of Liaoning, where his patron was the provincial governor. Soon after Bo was named head of the ruling Communist Party in Chongqing in 2008, he made Wang deputy police chief.

In that job, Wang directed a dramatic and widely publicized campaign against organized crime that netted – among other big fish – his boss, police chief Wen Qiang, who was executed in 2010. Wang’s exploits were reportedly to be immortalized in a film.

Bo, son of a revolutionary veteran, made his national political reputation with that campaign, though critics accused the Chongqing authorities of cutting legal corners and leaving particularly well-connected mafia bosses untouched.

Since then, he has kept himself in the spotlight with drives to reintroduce Mao-era socialist songs and to revive “socialist culture.”

Sudden reassignment

Wang’s sudden reassignment last week from one of Chongqing’s most powerful jobs to a post overseeing municipal education, science, and environmental affairs prompted some analysts to suspect he was being investigated, possibly for corruption.

Those suspicions fed rumors that he had tried to defect to the United States, which might possibly explain the appearance of large numbers of Chinese policemen outside the US consulate there on Tuesday evening.

The US Embassy spokesman in Beijing refused to comment on the rare police presence, other than saying that the consulate had not requested it. He would not comment either on Wang’s purported asylum bid.

The Chongqing municipal information office said on its version of Twitter Wednesday that Wang was “seriously indisposed due to long term overwork and intense mental stress. Currently he has been authorized to undergo vacation-style medical treatment.”

That highly unusual statement “probably means he is in detention,” Wu says.

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