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By Michael Martina
CHONGQING, China (Reuters) - A bizarre consular drama in southwest China is just the latest to buffet Bo Xilai, the suave politician angling to join the Communist Party's inner circle, but on Thursday residents of the city he runs fancied his chances of surviving.
China's communist leaders like to keep political intrigue out of public sight and the feverish speculation about Bo's longtime ally and chief crime-fighter, Wang Lijun, would be enough to sink less skilled politicians.
The city of Chongqing said on Wednesday deputy mayor Wang had taken sick leave, fanning rumours that he had been purged and sought refuge at the U.S. consulate in nearby Chengdu. The U.S. State Department confirmed that Wang Lijun, visited the consulate, but said it was a "scheduled meeting."
The episode could still blot former commerce minister Bo's prospects of climbing into the party's Standing Committee, which makes key decisions, when a new lineup is settled late this year. But China's state-run papers stayed largely mute on Wang, suggesting official desire to cool speculation after an uproar online.
"I think Bo Xilai is a bit like the Chinese version of Newt Gingrich -- he's so battle-scarred that does this really add or take away from a guy who is controversial?" said Kerry Brown, head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, a London foreign policy institute, referring to the Republican aspirant to the White House.
"If he's known for being a controversial character, I don't think these things have a big impact," Brown said of Bo. "It may just as well work to his advantage."
RED FAMILY, BLUE SUITS
In Chongqing, a sprawling municipality on the banks of the Yangtze River, residents said recent events had not changed their view of Bo, who has won public support and national attention for tackling crime gangs and pursuing a more egalitarian growth model.
Chinese citizens can't vote for their leaders. But an informal poll on the city's steep streets suggested it was too early to count out Bo, whose ill-concealed ambition and privileged background have attracted naysayers.
"From almost every perspective, Chongqing is better since Bo came," said Wu Jun, 25, when asked about Bo, a previous mayor of Dalian, a port city in eastern China.
"Look at Dalian too. When Bo was there, they also were developing well. So there is something to the man. I think a lot of people my age like him because he seems real," he said, adding that he wasn't concerned about the rumours swirling around Wang.
Bo Xilai's father, Bo Yibo, was a revolutionary comrade of Mao Zedong, making his son one of the "princelings" -- sons and daughters of the Communist Party's elite. Bo Xilai is reputed to have attacked his father in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when Mao urged youth to embrace radicalism.
Nowadays, Bo prefers sleek blue suits to Mao suits, and had his son, Bo Guagua, educated at an expensive English private school and Oxford University, where the younger Bo was linked to the Adam Smith Institute, a bulwark of pro-market ideas.
Photos of younger Bo partying hard at Oxford, which circulated widely on the Chinese internet, also do not help create an image of family dedication to tradition. The younger Bo has been spotted driving a expensive cars around Beijing.
The official Chongqing Daily heaped praise on Chongqing's anti-crime crackdown that Wang was instrumental in organising, but it did not mention Wang.
"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.
"Most people in Chongqing know about this news," 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 rumours about Wang sparked enthusiastic debate, attracting more than 500,000 posts -- unusually free discussion in a country where censors quickly delete sensitive political online messages.
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 hopes 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 harbour 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."
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.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee, Sabrina Mao and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie and Don Durfee)
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