BEIJING — Xi Jinping is expected to become the next leader of China, making him one of the most powerful men on the planet. But right now, no one outside the inner circles of power in Beijing is quite sure where he can be found.
Owing to the murky nature of Chinese officialdom, it’s not clear whether the fact that Xi hasn’t been seen for more than a week points to scandal or, more probably, nothing at all. There’s been no obvious sign of disruption in the government, though the recent lack of visibility by Xi in the run-up to his taking the reins of the world’s second-largest economy has raised eyebrows.
The question of his whereabouts first arose last Wednesday, when his scheduled meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was canceled. The same thing happened that day for a meeting with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
There was immediate speculation that the Chinese government had snubbed Clinton in a fit of diplomatic pique about what it sees as the United States’ overly aggressive involvement in Beijing’s territorial disputes with neighbors in the South China Sea. That narrative, however, didn’t quite fit: Vice Premier Li Keqiang substituted for Xi, and Clinton’s visit also included meetings with the Chinese president and premier.
Asked about Xi during a joint news conference with Clinton last Wednesday, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi responded: “The current schedule of the secretary’s visit has been agreed by the two sides. I hope people will not add unnecessary speculation.”
There were reports that Xi, 59, had hurt his back while playing soccer. Or perhaps while swimming.
But then an overseas website that’s known for carrying both verifiable information and egregiously inaccurate rumors about Chinese leadership said it had received information that Xi was hurt in an attempted assassination attempt disguised as a car accident and that a second powerful official, Politburo Standing Committee member He Guoqiang, was injured in a similar incident.
The U.S.-based website, Boxun.com, quickly took down the report and posted a new item Sunday, saying it had reliable reports that Xi’s health issue wasn’t serious. Xi, it turns out, has been busy preparing for an upcoming Chinese Communist Party congress that will usher in a once-in-a-decade change of national leadership, Boxun said.
It’s not known when, exactly, Xi last surfaced. A search of the website of the state Xinhua news wire resulted in an item from Sept. 1.
The case of Xi’s temporary disappearance comes during a shockingly turbulent political year for China.
A Hong Kong newspaper reported last week that a principal aide to President Hu Jintao was demoted because of attempts to suppress news that his son was killed in a car crash in March while driving a Ferrari in which he was accompanied by two women, one of whom was reportedly naked and the other in a state of semi-undress.
That followed a scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, a man once thought to be a serious contender for the Politburo Standing Committee, the center of power in China, who instead was purged this year from his job as the party boss of the city of Chongqing and as a member of the politburo. Bo hasn’t been charged with a crime, but his wife was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve on charges of killing a British businessman. Bo’s former chief of police, who set off Bo’s downfall by fleeing to a U.S. Consulate and reportedly accusing Bo’s wife of killing the businessman, soon will face charges involving defection, abuse of power and taking bribes.
In the midst of the speculation and confusion about Xi’s whereabouts, the editor of the South China Morning Post, the newspaper that ran the story about Hu’s aide, wrote in a column Monday that “the weak explanation of an ‘itinerary adjustment’ is unlikely to cut it” in stopping speculation about Xi.
“Because of the mainland’s opaque politics, particularly surrounding the leadership change, overseas media and analysts have often had to rely on official media reports of leaders’ public activities for clues about their health, and the political standing of the leaders who are reportedly involved in fierce political fighting over picking candidates to join the new leadership,” wrote Wang Xiangwei, who’s viewed as being well-connected in Chinese state media.
Wang said Beijing had taken “the unusual step” of notifying Hong Kong reporters that Xi would meet Monday with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. However, there was nothing planned between the leaders, according to an itinerary posted on the Danish prime minister’s official website, and a Foreign Ministry spokesman denied that the event was scheduled.
Whatever the case, Monday came and went, and Xi didn’t show.