Embattled Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo Xilai has returned to the public eye after a conspicuous three-day absence from a series of official events amid a continuing political storm that brought down his top protege.
Bo, a 'princeling' - his father was a communist revolutionary veteran - had been considered a leading contender for a spot in the party's innermost power circle in the leadership shake-up later this year. But on Friday he appeared to distance himself from his right-hand man, former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, who is the subject of rumours about a graft investigation.
Bo, meeting a visiting Vietnamese Communist Party official in Chonqging, recited a Chinese literary classic, Love of the Lotus Flower, and stressed the importance of party cadres staying clean even in a corrupt environment, according to party mouthpiece Chongqing Daily yesterday.
Political analysts said Bo might have been implicated in the scandal, and might be replaced by a close ally of President Hu Jintao .
Wang, a deputy mayor in Chongqing who rose to national fame for spearheading Bo's maverick crusade against organised crime, was believed to have been placed under investigation after his mysterious visit to the United States consulate in Chengdu , Sichuan, two weeks ago, a possible attempt to seek asylum. The internet rumour mills then went into overdrive with speculation about a possible fallout between Bo and Wang.
Several political sources said Hunan party chief Zhou Qiang had been tipped to take over Bo's post. Zhou is a key member of the Tuanpai - those with a background in the Communist Youth League, Hu's power base.
Analysts said that Bo's comments in the meeting with the Vietnamese appeared to seek a clean break.
'Bo apparently wants to distance and dissociate himself from Wang, given the growing possibility that the rumoured allegations plaguing Wang may be true,' Hong Kong-based China-watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said.
But he said the fact that Bo, already a Politburo member, had made several public appearances indicated that Beijing might have already drawn a clear line between Bo and Wang in the continuing graft probe.
Lau said Bo might soon be put in a less conspicuous spot by the top leadership, like previous Politburo members who were sidelined from the centre of political power.
'If Bo is forced to retire before the 18th Party Congress scheduled for later this year, it will make the party look bad ahead of the all-important transition of power,' Lau said.
Professor Zhang Ming, a political analyst at Beijing's Renmin University, noted that the lotus flower, a symbol of purity, had been mentioned by generations of Chinese politicians for its ability to rise above muddy waters.
'Bo is keenly aware of all the political rumours pointing to the close link between Wang and himself, and his message is simple and clear: 'I am innocent,'' Zhang said.