The Chinese Communist Party has been thrown into turmoil just when it wanted stability as a leadership transition approaches.
China's 'JFK' relieves police chief of his duties
BEIJING // It could be from an airport thriller: a former police chief who received death threats after cracking down on organised crime falls out with his boss and flees to the US consulate to seek asylum.
Whatever the truth behind events in recent days concerning Wang Lijun, the former public security head in Chongqing municipality in south-west China, the saga has thrown the Communist Party into turmoil, just when it wanted stability as a leadership transition approaches.
Mr Wang's fall from grace and apparent bid for asylum clouds the prospects of the boss and mentor he is believed to have clashed with, the Chongqing party secretary, Bo Xilai.
A charismatic but controversial figure who stands out from his reserved and sometimes bland colleagues, Mr Bo hopes to enter China's inner leadership circle at the reshuffle of top officials scheduled for the last quarter of this year.
Viewed by some as China's answer to the late US president John F Kennedy, Mr Bo is the "princeling" son of a revolutionary leader who since arriving in Chongqing in 2007 has waged a public campaign for promotion of the kind observers say has not been seen in China for decades.
"It doesn't really help anyone," Kerry Brown, a fellow at the Asia programme at the Chatham House think tank in London, said of recent events.
"You cannot say it's in Beijing's interests to have a significant political figure like Bo Xilai exposed like this. If they had wanted to deal with him, they would have dealt with it differently. You cannot say it's a good thing for the party in corporate terms."
Brought to Chongqing by Mr Bo, Mr Wang had been at the vanguard of a high-profile drive against organised crime that resulted in more than 1,000 arrests and claimed the scalps of dozens of officials who were allowing gangsters to flourish.
Among those who fell victim was the municipality's justice chief, Wen Qiang, who was executed in July 2010 for rape, taking bribes and protecting gangs. Because of his clean-up efforts, Mr Wang faced death threats from gang members.
The local Communist Party said on Wednesday he had gone on leave due to "immense mental stress", not long after an earlier announcement that he had been stripped of police duties and given a lower-profile economic portfolio resulted in suggestions Mr Bo had demoted him.
The US consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu confirmed to media that on Monday Mr Wang had paid them a visit, with many speculating he had gone there to seek asylum, although this has not been officially confirmed.
Reports yesterday said that on Wednesday Mr Wang travelled to Beijing with Qiu Jin, deputy head of China's state security ministry, although the reason for the trip remains unclear.
The fallout from a dispute with one of his officials is unlikely to benefit Mr Bo as he bids to enter the politburo standing committee, China's nine-strong supreme decision-making body.
"Whatever the truth is behind this, it looks bad for Bo and for the Chongqing model," said Christopher Hughes, a China political analyst at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
As well as launching a crackdown on corruption with Mr Wang's help, a move which delighted the public but concerned rights groups who felt due legal process had not been adhered to, Mr Bo has made headlines for a campaign to encourage the singing of "red songs" in Chongqing.
Locals were sent text messages of quotations from the former leader Mao Zedong as part of the attempt to stir up revolutionary fervour. It appeared to be part, said Mr Hughes, of a brazen bid for national recognition and power by Mr Bo unprecedented in recent Chinese history.
"It's hard to think of anyone who's done anything like that since the 1960s, when people did openly hang out their bids for power in public," he said.
Mr Hughes believes this month's turmoil, while not widely reported by state media, could have implications for a Communist Party that already attracts criticism for being corrupt. This is particularly the case, he said, following the upheavals that have swept the Middle East.
"People say the Communist Party can keep on going if it doesn't show signs of division, but historically, when you see signs of division at the top coming out in public, it sends this message to the public there's an opportunity for change. All kinds of unpredictable things happen," he said.
With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse