Chinese Communist "princeling" Bo Xilai, expected by many to take a key leadership position in the leadership transition of 2012, was expelled from the Communist Party in September after a career that saw him as Mayor of Dalian City, Minister of Commerce and Party Chief of the Chongqing municipality. His wife Gu Kailai received a suspended death sentence in August 2012 for murdering British business partner Neil Heywood.
Chongqing's political mystery deepens
About a week and a half ago, a high-ranking Chinese official was having dinner with friends in Beijing when he received an unusual text message on his mobile phone saying that Wang Lijun, the right-hand man of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, had sent a signed letter to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) detailing Bo's irregularities.
That text came shortly before Chongqing's official announcement on February 2 that Wang, who orchestrated a high-profile crackdown on organised crime and helped boost Bo's political fortunes, had been stripped of his position as the city's powerful police chief but remained a deputy mayor in charge of a less important portfolio.
The CCDI, the Communist Party's top watchdog on official corruption, receives tens of thousands of letters alleging graft each year, most of which are anonymous. From time to time, some people send signed letters to show their determination and the authenticity of their allegations. In Wang's case, the fact that he was targeting his former boss, who is a Politburo member and a strong contender for the Politburo Standing Committee, says he has nothing to fear.
'This is not good,' the unidentified high-ranking official said, according to a person briefed about the dinner.
That is certainly an understatement. What has since transpired has promised to become the biggest political storm on the mainland in recent history, casting uncertainties over Bo's political future and China's once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
As the storm has gathered strength, it has taken on the twists and turns of a political thriller featuring an intense power struggle involving China's current and future leaders, foreign influences, and the roles of the police and national security agents.
Journalists, though excited, have had the nightmarish job of sorting facts from tonnes of rumours swirling in the mainland blogosphere.
According to Washington, Wang walked into the US consulate in Chengdu in Sichuan province one week ago with a prior appointment made in his capacity as a deputy mayor, and he later left 'of his own volition'.
While confirming the US statement that Wang visited the consulate, Beijing said he was 'stranded' in the consulate for a day before leaving. The choice of the word 'stranded', which was used in a Chinese-language statement but not the English version, is very intriguing, as it implied that Wang could not have left early, even if he wanted to.
More interestingly, a day after Wang left the US consulate on Tuesday, the Chongqing government announced Wang was suffering from exhaustion from overwork and was receiving 'vacation-style treatment'.
Cui Tiankai, a deputy foreign minister, last week tried to play down the incident, saying it was 'an extremely isolated' case, and that it had been resolved.
Those statements were basically all that officials from Beijing and Washington were willing to give, but for mainlanders and foreigners who are interested in Chinese politics, the event is far from over, as many important questions are still unanswered.
For instance, what triggered the fallout between Bo and Wang? What did Wang say and do at the consulate during his stay of more than 10 hours? And what is going to happen to Bo?
Here we are entering the realm of the imagination, and your guess is as good as mine. Given the lack of official responses, the mainland's blogosphere has erupted with rumours and theories. That, in itself, is another intriguing development. Normally, mainland censors try hard to block discussions of politically sensitive matters by erasing entries on popular microblog sites such as Sina's. But aside from a brief period of censorship on Tuesday night, mainlanders have basically been free to discuss the incident.
There are two strands of interpretations for the fallout between Bo and Wang. Wang, 52, the mainland's most famous triad buster, followed Bo from Liaoning to help steer the anti-crime campaign in Chongqing three years ago. The controversial campaign, which led to the arrests of thousands of underground bosses, officials, and businessmen, has greatly burnished Bo's credentials and boosted his political chances for an important seat in the new leadership line-up to be unveiled later this year.
One theory goes that Bo refused to help Wang after his relatives were reportedly investigated for economic irregularities; while another, which is more significant, holds that the central government's real target is Bo, as launching investigations against important allies of the actual target is a typical approach in the party's history of power struggles.
A desperate Wang apparently decided to take the fight to the international level just days ahead of a visit to Washington this week by Vice-President Xi Jinping. On February 6, Wang drove to the US consulate in Chengdu.
What happened inside the consulate is a mystery, but it is not so hard to imagine what could have happened. Given the small size of the Chengdu consulate, there must have been some mad scrambling to get in touch with the US embassy in Beijing and top officials in Washington. Did Wang apply for political asylum? Did he bring top-secret papers implicating Bo? Did Washington contact Beijing before allowing Wang to leave?
While it is impossible to answer those questions at the moment, none of the overseas media seem to have picked up on the seemingly too-coincidental timing between Wang's stay in the US consulate and a widely reported phone conversation on Tuesday between Xi and his US counterpart, Joe Biden, during which both men promised to work to strengthen bilateral relationships ahead of Xi's visit. It is impossible to think that the men did not discuss Wang's case, given the timing.
What is now happening, and will happen, to Bo is the question on the minds of millions of mainlanders. It is interesting to note that soon after the Chongqing government said Wang was on medical leave, Wang's supposed medical records were posted online, showing he suffered from severe depression and was suicidal. This was apparently aimed at setting up a scenario in which Wang had lost his mind.
Now that Wang has reportedly been taken back to Beijing for questioning, some analysts say that Bo can easily argue Wang can not be trusted because of his mental condition. In addition, a high-ranking official such as Wang seeking refuge at a US consulate will be deemed a 'traitor', which could also reduce the impact of his allegations against Bo.
And the fact that Bo appeared relatively relaxed in his meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the weekend also appears to show that he is safe for now.