A crusading former police chief in the boomtown of Chongqing disappeared under unexplained circumstances and reportedly may have tried and failed to obtain political asylum at the nearest U.S. Consulate.
Chongqing issued an unusual and cryptic statement Wednesday saying that Vice Mayor Wang Lijun was "highly stressed and in poor health … because of long-term overwork" and that he was "accepting vacation-style treatment."
The reports that he might have sought asylum in the United States were fueled by an unusual police presence at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu.
Richard Buanguan, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, said Wednesday, "As a matter of policy we never comment on reported requests for asylum." Buanguan said that at no time was the consulate in Chengdu under threat.
In Washington, U.S. officials said Wang sought and was granted a meeting this week with officials at the consulate in Chengdu.
Victoria Nuland, the chief State Department spokeswoman, said Wang asked for the meeting "in his capacity as vice mayor," but she declined to provide other details of the encounter.
Despite reports that he was forced to leave, she said Wang "left of his own volition.... He walked out. It was his choice."
By late Tuesday, the consulate in Chengdu was surrounded by Chinese police and some roads blockaded. Dozens of photographs were posted on the Chinese microblog Sina Weibo but quickly removed by censors. The Hong Kong-based Oriental Daily News said that Wang was arrested after failing to obtain political asylum. Boxun, a U.S.-based Chinese website, said that Wang was under investigation by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party's top disciplinary body, and that he had been transferred to Beijing.
The South China Morning Post, based in Hong Kong, said he had also sought asylum at another country's consulate.
Chengdu, about 165 miles from Chongqing, has the closest consulate. It would be highly unusual for an official to seek asylum inside the country in question, as a consulate or embassy can easily be surrounded.
Whatever has happened to Wang, the scandal could derail Bo Xilai, the Communist Party secretary in Chongqing and a rising political star. Wang was Bo's top cop during a well-publicized crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing in which Wang's predecessor, Wen Qiang, was executed for corruption.
Bo, who also headed a campaign to revive "red culture" last year, is vying for a seat on the Politburo's Standing Committee.
The 52-year-old Wang, who faced countless death threats during the anticorruption campaign, was removed Feb. 2 as head of the Chongqing Public Security Bureau and given the position of vice mayor in charge of education, commerce and sports.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.