Asylum rumors sparked by China crime buster's 'medical leave'

Wang Lijun pictured last year at the National People's Congress in Beijing.

Story highlights

  • Reports that Wang Lijun was on 'medical leave' sparked a frenzied response on social media sites
  • His departure led to rumors that he may have sought asylum at a U.S. consulate
  • Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said the matter had been resolved
  • An abrupt change in Wang's portfolio triggered speculation that he may be in political trouble
Reports that the crime-busting deputy mayor of a Chinese city had gone on "medical leave" sparked a frenzied response on social media Wednesday, amid speculation that he had sought asylum at a U.S. consulate.
Wang Lijun, a former police chief and now vice mayor of Chongqing in southwestern China, had suffered "immense mental stress" caused by overwork, city officials reported on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter.
The post added that Wang was in poor health but enjoying "vacation-style treatment."
The statement was re-posted 30,000 times within an hour, before it was removed, together with thousands of comments. But hours later, an identical post appeared explaining that the removal of the first post was due to an "operational mistake."
The postings and Wang's sudden departure led to widespread speculation among netizens about what actually happened to him.
Many speculated he may have sought political asylum at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu -- around six hours' drive from Chongqing -- after pictures were posted on Weibo showing a heavy security presence around the U.S. Consulate, with roads sealed off around the building.
Richard Buangan, spokesman for the U.S. embassy in China, told CNN that the U.S. "is not in a position to comment on issues regarding the security of diplomatic facilities." He added that "there was no threat to the Consulate" and that the U.S. government "did not request any increased security."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Amanda Nuland told reporters at a briefing in Washington later Wednesday that Wang had requested a meeting at the U.S. Consulate earlier in the week in his capacity as vice mayor.
"The meeting was scheduled, our folks met with him, he did visit the consulate and he later left the consulate of his own volition," she said. "So -- and obviously, we don't talk about issues having to do with refugee status, asylum, et cetera."
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai on Thursday dismissed reporters' questions about the matter, saying it has been resolved and would not affect next week's visit to the U.S. by Vice President Xi Jinping.
"What happened two days ago was an extremely isolated case, and it has already been resolved," Cui replied to a reporter's question giving no futher details.
Wang, 53, an ethnic Mongolian, made his reputation as a tough crime-fighter, spearheading a 2009 campaign against Chongqing's notorious criminal gangs, even inspiring a TV series based on his exploits.
The city of about 30 million has experienced rapid economic growth in recent years, but it has also been saddled with cases of corruption and gang-related crime.
According to the state-controlled Global Times, Wang was brought to Chongqing in 2008 by Bo Xilai -- the city's communist party chief -- to lead the crime-fighting campaign "da hei" (smash black).
Under Wang, the da hei campaign reportedly smashed nearly 3,000 criminal groups and detained thousands of suspects. It also led to the execution of notorious figures in the city's underworld.
The crackdown helped boost the public profile of Bo Xilai, a charismatic Politburo member who is part of China's political class of "princelings," sons and daughters of revolutionary veterans.
In 2011, police chief Wang Lijun was promoted to deputy mayor of Chongqing.
Last week, however, the Chongqing city government announced that Wang, as deputy mayor, was being reassigned from overseeing public security to looking after the city's education, technology and environmental departments.
The abrupt change in Wang's portfolio triggered speculation that he may be in political trouble. Still, he seemed to remain in good standing.
A Chongqing government statement described Wang as an official with "staunch political standing" and a "good reputation among people."
On February 5, Wang appeared on local television, where he was shown visiting the local Education Bureau. That is believed to be his last official public appearance.
Observers say Wang's abrupt "leave" puts Bo in a tight spot because he has anchored his political agenda on the anti-corruption campaign led by Wang.
Bo is considered a strong contender for a spot in the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo. A new lineup of leaders is expected to be formally announced in late 2012.
The questions surrounding Wang -- and his abrupt departure -- are deemed as a blow to Bo's public reputation and political future.