BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao rebuked on Wednesday a high-profile contender for top leadership over a February incident in which a top aide took refuge in a U.S. diplomatic mission.
Bo Xilai, the ambitious Communist Party head of the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, has been the subject of much speculation since Vice Mayor Wang Lijun, his longtime police chief, went to ground in the U.S. Consulate in nearby Chengdu until he was coaxed out and placed under investigation.
The incident and the rumours it fanned could blot Bo's prospects of climbing to the Party's top ruling body when a new generation of leaders is unveiled at a meeting late this year.
Wen added to the cloud around Bo by scolding the Chongqing government about the scandal, in the first public comment by a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the government's highest level.
"The present Chongqing municipal Party committee and the municipal government must reflect seriously and learn from the Wang Lijun incident," Wen told a news conference carried live on state television at the end of the annual meeting of parliament.
Wen, who mentioned Bo's city office but did not single him out by name, said the central government attached great importance to the case, and had "immediately instructed the relevant departments to carry out a special investigation".
Progress had been made in the investigation, Wen said, which would be handled strictly in accordance with the law.
"We will give the people an answer to the results of the investigation and the handling (of the case), so that it can withstand the test of law and history," he said.
The 18th Party Congress later this year will see China's biggest leadership transition in nearly a decade.
The interest in Bo on the sidelines of a parliament session, including a rare grilling by foreign media at a news conference last week, underscored how much he has stirred up the typically stolid Chinese political scene ahead of that succession.
Chongqing authorities said last month that Wang had taken sick leave, sparking speculation he had been purged and had sought asylum at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.
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.
In response to a separate question, Wen also appeared to obliquely criticise Bo's drive to revive songs and culture from the heyday of Mao's Communist revolution, a drive that many liberal critics have called dangerous nostalgia for a discredited past.
Wen hinted that he shared those misgivings about Bo's "red" campaign by citing the Communist Party decision that repudiated the Cultural Revolution and acknowledged a succession of errors by Mao. But Wen stopped short of explicitly mentioning Bo.
"I want to say a few words at this point, since the founding of the People's Republic of China, under the leadership of the Party and the government, our country's modernisation drive has made great achievements. Yet at the same time, we've also taken detours and have learnt hard lessons," he said.
"We have established the line of thinking and that we should free our minds and seek truth from facts and we have formulated the basic guidelines of our Party. In particular, we've taken the major decision of conducting reform and opening up in China, a decision that's crucial for China's future and destiny."
Wen's family history might make him especially averse to any nostalgia for Mao's time. He comes from a family of teachers, and during China's era of fervent Communism, his father and grandfather were among the victims of party campaigns against citizens deemed to have bad "class" backgrounds.
Editing by Robert Birsel