BEIJING A contender for China's top leadership, Bo Xilai used to strut though the annual parliament meeting like a bantam cockerel.
Feted for his crime-fighting skills and transforming smoggy Chongqing into a model of "red" socialist revival, Bo has come under an awkward silence at this year's gathering of China's National People's Congress after a long-time aide disappeared into a scandal that has baffled and tantalised fans and foes.
Bo, the telegenic Communist Party chief of the sprawling southwestern municipality, has been embroiled in a bizarre drama over last month's apparent defection attempt by vice mayor Wang Lijun, who was long his police chief.
The episode with Wang, and the rumours it fanned, could blot Bo's prospects of climbing into the party's top leadership body when a new line-up is settled late this year.
Where once Bo loved wading into crowds of reporters at the annual gathering of the largely rubber stamp National People's Congress, he has been decidedly low key this year, confining his public appearances to sitting with other top officials at the front of the Great Hall of the People.
And fellow delegates, especially those from Chongqing, have hardly been rushing to the defence of the ex-commerce minister.
Asked whether the central government still had confidence in Bo following the Wang case, Chongqing delegate Duan Laka shuffled nervously: "I really could not say".
"Chongqing's development over the past few years has been very good. The people are very satisfied," he said, trying to cover up his name badge, and declining to give any more comment on what he thought of Bo.
Wang was being investigated, Duan added, though he would not say exactly what for.
JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS?
Another group from Chongqing declined to answer questions on Bo or Wang, and scurried around behind a line of security guards who kept journalists away.
"I don't know. I don't understand anything about him. I know he works in Chongqing and is Chinese, but I don't know anything else," said Zhao Buchang from the eastern province of Shandong.
Wang had been a key figure in an anti-organised crime drive pursued by Bo, who has encouraged a revival of socialist culture from the time of Mao Zedong while seeking to transform Chongqing's economy into a model of more equal growth.
Chongqing authorities said last month that Wang had taken sick leave, sparking online rumours that he had been purged and had sought refuge at the U.S. consulate in nearby Chengdu.
The U.S. State Department confirmed that Wang had visited the consulate for an entire day, but said it was a "scheduled meeting" and that he later left on "his own volition".
Wang is listed as a parliamentary delegate, but the government says he has "requested leave" this year.
The episode has been widely discussed in China on Twitter-like microblogging sites, though most state-controlled papers have remained largely silent on the issue and Chinese reporters covering parliament say they have been told not to bring it up.
"Didn't the papers mention Bo Xilai in the past few days? Isn't he still sitting on the stage? But of course, who knows what will happen tomorrow. He might be OK today," said Hong Zhanqian, a Shanghai delegate to the mostly ceremonial advisory congress which meets in tandem with parliament.
Sze Cheung Pang from Hong Kong dismissed talk Bo was out of favour.
"Didn't you see him up there? How can you say he has no support? All of you are just jumping to conclusions."
(Additional reporting by Sui-lee Wee; Editing by Robert Birsel)