The plot thickens
While onlookers held their breath watching the dramatic downfall of Bo Xilai's right-hand man this month, the princeling-politician appeared unfazed by the political firestorm gathering in his backyard.
Just hours after former Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, was rumoured to have been escorted off a flight to Beijing by state security officers following what was reportedly a failed defection attempt, Bo, Chongqing's Communist Party boss, was watching a Peking opera.
Bo was smiling and seemed as relaxed and charming as usual on his official trip to Yunnan province, according to mainland media. But some observers detected signs of stress, saying he looked exhausted and inattentive while listening to his favourite arias from the model operas of the Cultural Revolution.
The next generational leadership succession is just a few months away, adding layers of intrigue to the startling events involving Wang, Bo's triad-buster: his sudden loss of favour, his conspicuous flight into the US consulate in Chengdu and the announcement by the Chongqing government that he was receiving 'vacation-style treatment' in Beijing - before changing gears to admit he was under investigation.
Many facts of Wang's downfall are unknown, creating a tide of gossip, rumour and speculation as observers wade through the murky waters of mainland politics and peek into the possible ramifications.
As a frontrunner in the upcoming reshuffle, Bo knows what is expected of him in the international media spotlight and what is at stake, namely, his race for a seat on the Politburo's Standing Committee, the party's innermost circle of power. Even yesterday rumours swirled that Bo had resigned from the Politburo, though the report could not be immediately confirmed.
The 63-year-old son of a party elder has made little secret of his leadership ambition with his high-profile, and often controversial, manoeuvring over the years. Known for shrewd politicking, Bo knows that even with popularity and pedigree, he needs to lie low when the wind blows against him, especially if it carries a whiff of scandal.
Wang, 53, had earned national fame spearheading Bo's maverick crusade against organised crime in Chongqing - one of Bo's signature achievements and a stepping stone in his quest for promotion.
Analysts say Bo's image has been inevitably tainted by the downfall of such a close ally and it may be just a matter of time before he is implicated by the evolving scandal. A central government probe into Wang has just begun and may take weeks, if not months, to conclude.
Beijing has largely remained tight-lipped on the Wang affair, which has dominated discussions of news topics - even stealing some of the limelight from a landmark visit to the US by President Hu Jintao's heir apparent, Vice-President Xi Jinping.
The glaring absence of official information has made it virtually impossible to understand the bad blood between Wang and his boss, the circumstances that led to their final showdown or Wang's desperate, irrevocable step to seek help from the US - and what secretive role was played by Beijing.
The rumour mills are spinning, the internet humming with multiple scenarios. Some are even plausible.
Hints of Bo's falling-out with Wang had been circulating for some time, but it was not until Wang appeared at the US consulate that the public could see there was a conflict between the long-time close allies.
The drama began with photos showing a heavy police presence outside the consulate on February 7, prompting speculation that Wang had fled to the US mission to seek asylum, but that his application had been turned down.
Rumours flew that Wang had disguised himself to escape from Bo's surveillance and had driven the 300 kilometres from Chongqing to the consulate carrying top-secret documents, including corruption evidence implicating Bo.
Wang disappeared from public view after that. According to early reports he was taken away by the top disciplinary watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, for an unspecified investigation.
Neither the US nor China released details of Wang's meeting with American diplomats or commented on his reported bid to seek US asylum. The US embassy in Beijing did say that Washington had nothing to do with the swarms of police and roadblocks around its Chengdu facility.
China watchers believe the ambiguity by both sides had much to do with Xi's US tour, widely expected to set the tone for the Sino-US relationship in the coming decade.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that diplomats met Wang.
'The meeting was scheduled, our folks met with him, he did visit the consulate [on February 6] and he later left the consulate of his own volition,' she said.
In Beijing, Deputy Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai also sought to play down Wang's visit to the consulate, calling it an 'extremely isolated case'. 'This issue was resolved and was resolved quite smoothly,' he said on February 9.
The Foreign Ministry heightened the intrigue a few hours later with a terse statement saying that authorities 'are investigating the case.'
Analysts noted that the statement seemed to openly rebut the municipal government's claim days earlier that Wang was taking time off due to stress and overwork.
Bo reportedly did not learn about Wang's flight to the US consulate until February 7. In a desperate bid at damage control, he sent Chongqing Mayor Huang Qifan and a convoy of armed police and police vehicles to seize Wang in Chengdu.
But Bo had to pull back his troops, according to some reports, when central government officials arrived at the scene to take Wang to Beijing.
Several Chongqing sources confirmed the story, saying it was Huang who surrounded the US consulate under Bo's instruction. The mayor was summoned to Beijing a few days later to explain the siege, which apparently annoyed the US days ahead of Xi's visit Washington.
To add to the intrigue, Bo went on the inspection trip to Kunming at the height of the drama, talking about environmental conservation and economic cooperation. Analysts interpreted the move as his attempt to stay out of the public eye.
But eyebrows were raised when his itinerary included a visit to the 14th Group Army, a People's Liberation Army unit set up by his late father, revolutionary Bo Yibo. Analysts and microbloggers guessed that Bo was trying to garner support from his father's followers and show his backing in the military.
While it remains unclear why Wang fell out of Bo's favour, some analysts said Wang's controversial anti-mafia crackdown may have become too much of a liability.
The crackdown made both men famous, but Bo's methods were criticised. Under a declaration of extrajudicial powers, his police officers arrested nearly 6,000 people, including billionaires, cadres, police officers and crime bosses. Critics complained the campaign rode 'roughshod' over the rule of law'.
Days before his flight to the US consulate, Wang had been stripped of his powerful position as chief and reassigned to a portfolio that covers education and the environment. A number of his aides, including his chauffeur, were reportedly detained.
He appears to have had a well-prepared exit strategy. Sources said Wang may have turned in Bo to the party's top anti-graft watchdog - by sending a signed letter detailing Bo's irregularities - well before Bo began to purge Wang. The letter, if confirmed, could be devastating to Bo's political career, analysts said.
According to information that emerged last week, the rift between Bo and Wang might have begun in May. That's when Beijing started investigating Gu Fengjie, Wang's successor as police chief in Tieling, Liaoning province. Gu was sentenced last month to 12 years in jail on corruption charges.
The northeast province was Bo's powerbase and he and Wang proved a powerful team their in the 1990s, as Wang waged his earlier anti-triad campaign. Wang was clearly targeted in the Gu investigation, analysts said.
Bo came to Chongqing in 2007, after a four-year stint as minister of commerce in Beijing. Wang followed in 2008 and orchestrated the anti-mafia crackdown the next year. He is believed to have a wife and daughter, but it is not clear whether they know his whereabouts.
Dai Qing, a writer and journalist, said Bo obviously was worried his leadership ambitions would be affected if Wang were implicated in the Tieling graft probe.
'Clearly Bo refused to help Wang and wanted to dump Wang, but Wang was defiant,' she said. 'That ignited their showdown and Wang's risky flight.'
Some analysts content that President Hu and his supporters may be behind the drama, with Bo being their real target.
Professor Roderick MacFarquhar, a long-time China watcher at Harvard University, said it was a common tactic on the mainland to take down 'an underling as a way of getting at a more senior leader'.
Another sign that Beijing could be involved the drama has been the unusually lax control of the internet and the media, allowing frenzied discussion about the events.
But supporters of Bo apparently have not given up hope. Soon after Bo's press office said Wang was on stress leave, rumours arose that Wang suffered from severe depression and was suicidal. Supposed medical records questioning Wang's mental sanity were posted online - all apparently meant to undermine Wang's credibility.
'This is such an opaque process and system,' said Dr Kerry Brown, a senior fellow with London-based Chatham House. 'It frequently becomes the victim of its own secrecy.'
Many China watchers see a replay of the downfalls of former Shanghai mayor Chen Liangyu in 2006 and former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong in 1995. Both dramas unfolded in advance of five-year party congresses.
Chen Liangyu's fall from grace after he was connected to the corruption case of a Shanghai tycoon had a strong impact on mainland politics, then consumed with power struggles between factions loyal to Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin .
Chen Xitong, who was also a member of the party's top-level Politburo, was jailed for graft in 1998. He was wildly believed to be a victim of a power struggle engineered by then-president Jiang, who was keen to remove an adversary.
Professor Joseph Fewsmith of Boston University, a China expert, said Wang's case showed that the 'smooth transition of power' on the mainland was anything but.
'We will have to see how far factional in-fighting will go - perhaps this has been planned in a way that one force or another in the party will be able to dominate,' Fewsmith said. 'But if others retaliate by exposing other corruption cases, then the struggle for power might become quite intense.'
The number of people, including government advisers, top police officers and billionaires arrested in Wang Lijun's crime crackdown