Old Before I Die
Only When You Leave
This is an Emergency
Tania Branigan in Beijing, Tuesday 11th September 2012 15:39
There should be little mystery about China's next leader. Xi Jinping is expected to take the helm of the Communist party in a matter of weeks, in the long-awaited, once-a-decade transition of power. Next spring, he is expected to become the country's president.
But for 10 days, there has been no sign of the country's heir apparent. His absence from the public eye – and the lack of any coherent explanation – has unleashed a storm of bizarre rumours and wild speculation, and raised fresh questions over the secrecy and rigidity of the party system.
Xi's last recorded public appearance was on 1 September, and since then he has skipped a string of expected meetings with foreign politicians. Officials have so far stone-walled, telling journalists they have no information about Xi's whereabouts and condition. Other sources have suggested the 59-year-old is suffering from health issues; possibly a bad back or perhaps even a mild heart attack.
"Everybody's looking for him – I'm looking for him," said Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics. "It seems like it's a little bit serious. He's been absent for 10 days without any explanation." Xi cancelled meetings with Hillary Clinton and the Singaporean prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, last week. According to a media advisory, he was also due to meet the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, for a photo opportunity on Monday, although she later said he had never been included in her schedule.
His name was also missing from a list of attendees of a meeting of the Central Military Commission, of which he is a vice-chairman. Xi is expected to become general secretary of the Communist party next month, although no date for the party congress has been formally announced.
The party hoped this year's leadership transition would be smooth and uneventful, but it has already seen the dramatic toppling of the populist politician Bo Xilai and, more recently, the reassignment of one of President Hu Jintao's key allies after his son's reported involvement in a fatal Ferrari crash.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the silence over Xi's whereabouts "opens the door to all sorts of rumours, including some pretty incredible ones".
The most outlandish – since retracted by the US-based Chinese-language site that published it – suggested he had been hurt in a car crash orchestrated by a military official seeking to injure or kill him.
Amid baseless speculation and official silence, one journalist asked a foreign ministry spokesman if he could at least confirm Xi was still alive. "I hope you can ask a serious question," was the reply.
Reuters said two unnamed sources had blamed a minor ailment. "Xi injured his back when he went for his daily swim," a source close to the Beijing leadership told the news agency last week, after he cancelled a meeting with Clinton. Another source, citing people close to Xi, said this week: "He's unwell, but it's not a big problem."
Analysts say insiders may well have an interest in playing down problems. But they also point out that the health of leaders is a highly sensitive subject in China and that it would be foolish to read too much into the silence of authorities. "Part of this is standard operating procedure; it's not obfuscation or misdirection as much as it is bureaucratic default," said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst.
In the west, the persistent pressure for officials to explain themselves would result in disclosure. In China, "I don't think anyone sees a compelling need," he said. But as China takes an increasingly central role on the world stage, such an approach is no longer tenable, argued Cabestan. "For a country like China – the world's largest by population and its second largest economy – to keep this degree of opacity in the political process … I think it's unsustainable.
"In their view it shouldn't be a problem. In our view it is – and in the eyes of more and more Chinese people who are on the internet and trying to get information that way," he said.
Online discussion about the leadership is heavily censored in China. Microbloggers on the Sina Weibo service skirted control by referring to Xi as the "crown prince", but on Tuesday evening it was no longer possible to search for the words "back injury" on the service.
Steve Tsang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Nottingham, said that while the party's handling of such issues eroded trust and therefore stability rather than protecting them, it would probably continue thanks to habit and vested interests in the bureaucracy.
He added: "It doesn't matter if they tell the truth; no one will believe them anyway. The credibility of the party is so bad that unless people see Xi Jinping is physically well, nobody will believe what they say."