BEIJING (AP) — A high-flying Chinese politician dogged by a scandal involving a subordinate possibly seeking U.S. asylum missed an important session of the national legislature Thursday, raising speculation about new setbacks to his political ambitions.
Chongqing boss Bo Xilai's highly unusual unexplained absence came as the mystery surrounding the city's ex-police chief and Bo's former right-hand man grew even murkier. A local businessman said Wednesday that police had threatened him over his plans to release information shedding light on connections between the former police chief and a local tycoon.
Bo was the only one of the 25 members of the ruling Communist Party's Politburo not at Thursday's meeting of the National People's Congress, and a seat or place card for him was not evident. The body is holding its annual 10-day session in Beijing this month.
State broadcaster CCTV's evening news showed Bo attending a meeting Thursday of the Chongqing delegation, although he was not heard speaking.
The Chongqing delegation to the congress is scheduled to hold a round-table with media on Friday, although it isn't clear if Bo will attend. The telegenic, somewhat flamboyant, leader had already met with delegation members on Monday's opening day of the session, and he attended Wednesday' session, too.
Bo's political future has been under question since former police chief Wang Lijun was believed to have unsuccessfully sought political asylum last month at the U.S. consulate in the city of Chengdu. Wang has since been taken into custody by investigators.
A spokesman for the NPC, who like many Chinese officials would not give his name, said he had no information about Bo's absence from Thursday's session.
Bo, Chongqing's Communist Party secretary and top official, was thought to have a strong chance of being named to the Communist Party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee later this year before Wang's scandal broke.
Bo had entrusted Wang with carrying out a high-profile crackdown on Chongqing's organized crime syndicates and their police protectors, a campaign later criticized for its alleged use of torture and other violations. Amid rumors that Wang was being investigated over past dealings in another city, he apparently fell out with Bo and made a dash for the Chengdu consulate.
Chongqing officials have said Wang was suffering from stress and was undergoing therapy. However, central government officials say he is under investigation and will face legal sanction depending on the outcome.
In an interview this week with Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite Television, Chongqing Mayor Huang Qifan said he pursued Wang to Chengdu and had persuaded him to return to Chongqing before state security agents took him away. In doing so, Huang said he had avoided a "foreign policy crisis." U.S. officials say Wang had an appointment at the consulate and left on his own volition, but have refused to discuss anything that happened inside the consulate.
Speculation has been rife about the reasons behind Wang's visit to the consulate, with some saying he may have relayed information about corruption within the city administration. With a muzzled state controlled media and little government transparency, such rumors easily gain traction online and in overseas publications that follow Chinese politics.
Lending them further heft was Chongqing politician Zhang Mingyu's claim that police threatened him over his plans to release information about Wang's links to Chongqing property tycoon Weng Zhenjie. Weng has been linked to a local official who reportedly committed suicide amid reports of corruption and official collusion with gangsters in the sprawling western metropolis.
Zhang's lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, said Zhang called him on Wednesday and said a deputy Chongqing police chief surnamed Tang had just visited him at his Beijing apartment and told him not to discuss connections between Wang and Weng.
Zhang had earlier posted on the Chinese microblog Weibo that he planned to release more revealing information about Wang's case.
Zhang's mobile phone was disconnected on Thursday and his whereabouts were unknown. Calls to Chongqing police headquarters and city government and Communist Party committee spokesmen rang unanswered.