CHONGQING, China (Reuters) - A mysterious consular incident in southwest China has cast an unwelcome spotlight on Bo Xilai, a former commerce minister jostling to join the Communist Party's inner circle, but muted reaction in state media suggests officials are eager to play down the incident -- at least for now.
The city of Chongqing said on Wednesday deputy mayor Wang Lijun -- seen as a close ally of the ambitious city Party Secretary Bo -- had taken sick leave, fanning rumors he had been purged and had sought asylum at the U.S. consulate in nearby Chengdu.
The visit to the consulate was an "isolated incident" that had been resolved, Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said, adding that it would not affect a visit to the United States by Vice President Xi Jinping next week.
The rumors swirling around Wang's movements could blot Bo's prospects of joining China's standing committee, the party group responsible for key policy decisions.
But China's state-controlled papers stayed largely silent on the issue, suggesting a desire to limit speculation after an uproar on the Internet.
The official Chongqing Daily heaped praise on Chongqing's anti-crime crackdown that Wang had been instrumental in organizing, but did not mention him.
"The evil criminals have been destroyed, the people are clapping and cheering. The fight against the evil forces has been fully affirmed by the superiors and the community," said the article, giving Bo prominent mention.
Wang has been the law-and-order hatchet man of Bo, who has encouraged a revival of socialist culture from the time of Mao Zedong while seeking to transform Chongqing's economy.
In Chongqing, some residents said they had heard the news, but continued to support Bo, a charismatic figure who has brought investment and publicity to the city and surrounding countryside.
"Most people in Chongqing know about this news (Wang Lijun)," said a clean-cut man in his late 50s who declined to give his name.
"If it is true, most of us find it very surprising. Only a few weeks ago Wang was in the papers for his contributions to fighting crime," he said, adding that the city was safer after Bo's anti-crime campaign.
On China's hugely popular "Weibo" microblog service, the rumors about Wang triggered heated debate, attracting more than 500,000 posts. The search terms "Wang Lijun" and "Vacation-style treatment" ranked No.3 and No.4 on the list of most searched terms.
Searches for "Bo Xilai" were blocked, but the names of senior leaders usually are.
Still, some microblog users managed to defy censors with oblique references to Bo, 62, who has advertised his ambitions for a place in the central leadership through a campaign of "red" songs and culture extolling Mao's achievements.
"What great luck, if (we) allow these people who harbor ambition in their hearts and have red songs all over their mouths (to) gain power, the Chinese people will go back to the Cultural Revolution," said a user called "Music person Ma Jun."
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Sabrina Mao; Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Nick Macfie)