By Chris Buckley and Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - 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 U.S. consulate.
That speculation could not be confirmed. Yet, even if unfounded, the lurid rumors 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-organized 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 organized crime -- to overseeing education, science, environmental protection and other areas.
The move fanned rumors 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. government did not request increased security around the compound," said Buangan.
ALLY OF CHONGQING PARTY SECRETARY
The unconfirmed rumors about Wang's fall or flight come shortly before Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is due to visit the United States on a trip that will underscore his virtual certainty of succeeding Hu Jintao as top leader from late 2012.
Wang has been seen as the hatchet man of Bo, a charismatic politician who has encouraged a revival of socialist culture from the time of Mao Zedong while seeking to transform Chongqing's economy into a model of more equal growth.
He was a key figure in Bo's campaign against criminal gangs in the sprawling city-province, a drive welcomed by many residents, but criticized by some lawyers and commentators as a purge-like effort that trampled on legal protections and spared figures seen as enjoying protection.
Bo has been widely expected to be a contender for a place in the new lineup of Chinese leaders to be settled in a secretive process that culminates in a Communist Party Congress late in 2012 and a national parliament session in early 2013.
The Chongqing Public Security Bureau reported in May that Wang, who then led the bureau, was unanimously endorsed as a deputy mayor by the city's party-controlled congress.
The government praised Wang for his "unyielding political stance," as well as his "courage in making pioneering innovations and adeptness at dealing with complicated problems," said the report on the bureau's website (www.cqga.gov.cn).
Wang's mobile phone was turned off on Wednesday. A Chongqing official contacted about Wang would not comment on the reports.
A former Chongqing official told Reuters that Wang's abrupt and rumor-swathed departure could tarnish Bo's prospects.
"Their ties were like fish and water. Wang has been a close follower of Bo, important in implementing his will," said the official, who spoke on condition that his name not be used to avoid possible censure.
"It's hard to see what really lies behind all this," he added. "But it will be a serious problem for Bo Xilai. At the very least, it looks bad."
Wang rose through the ranks of police in his home region of Inner Mongolia and then Liaoning province in northeast China, where he became an ally of Bo. He was transferred to Chongqing in 2008, after Bo was sent there as party boss.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley, Sui-Lee Wee, Sabrina Mao, Sisi Tang in Hong Kong, Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Don Durfee and Ed Lane)