High-flying Chinese Leader Absent From Top Meeting

Published March 8, 2012 7:54AM (EST)

BEIJING (AP) — A high-flying Chinese politician dogged by a scandal involving a subordinate possibly seeking asylum in the United States has missed an important session of the national legislature, raising speculation about new setbacks to his political ambitions.

Chongqing city boss Bo Xilai 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. The body is holding its annual 10-day session in Beijing this month.

Bo's political future has been under question since Wang Lijun, Chongqing's ex-police chief and Bo's former right-hand man, 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, and Bo attended the NPC's opening on Monday and was present at its Wednesday session.

A spokesman for the NPC, who like many Chinese officials would not give his name, said he had no information about Bo's highly unusual 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 that later fell under criticism 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.

Bo's absence also comes one day after Chongqing politician Zhang Mingyu claimed that police threatened him over his plans to release information about Wang's links to a Chongqing businessman, Weng Zhenjie. The tycoon 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 visited him at his Beijing apartment and told him not to discuss connections between Wang and the tycoon, Weng.

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.

By Salon Staff

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