Speculation rampant over leader-in-waiting's vanishing act


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When asked to explain why China's leader-in-waiting has not been seen in public for 11 days, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei responded by saying: "I hope you will raise more serious questions."

But for China, Xi Jinping's whereabouts is a serious matter. His apparent disappearance comes only weeks before the country's once-in-a-decade leadership transition, when the 59-year-old is due to begin the drawn-out process of replacing the outgoing President, Hu Jintao.

Since his last public outing at a school on 1 September, Mr Xi has cancelled a string of meetings with dignitaries including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the prime ministers of Singapore and Denmark. Yet it may be Mr Xi's reported failure to attend an internal meeting of China's Central Military Commission which proves most telling, at a time when a leader-in-waiting would usually be pulling out all the stops to secure power over the country's armed forces ahead of the transition.

Meanwhile, no official reason for Mr Xi's absence has been offered by China's secretive leadership and, as a result, the information vacuum has been filled with rampant speculation about his possible whereabouts. China's foreign ministry merely denied that Mr Xi's meeting with the Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, had ever been scheduled in the first place. "We have told everybody everything," Mr Hong insisted.

As China's local media is controlled by the state, it is not permitted to print speculation about leadership matters, leading discussion to take place in online social networks. A system of online censorship controls nicknamed "The Great Firewall of China" attempts to restrict online conversation by preventing users from searching for sensitive terms – yesterday, searches for "Xi Jinping" were blocked on the popular microblogging website Weibo.

However, code words allow users to circumvent China's attempts to control online discussion. In the days that Mr Xi has been absent, some have spread the word he has been injured playing football. Others have suggested he has been hurt in a car crash.

Two sources told Reuters yesterday that Mr Xi had merely injured his back while swimming.

But Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a professor at Hong Kong's Chinese University and former China editor of the South China Morning Post, believes Mr Xi has suffered a stroke. "He became seriously ill after a stroke and is now receiving treatment at a hospital in Beijing… I've been hearing the same story from both people in Xi's family and the party leadership," he told Norway's Aftenposten newspaper.

China's rumour mill is comparable to that of the Soviet Union during the Cold War years. When President Yuri Andropov fell seriously ill, the government told the people he had a "cold".

Far-fetched conspiracy theories about Mr Xi include one which suggests he has been injured in an assassination attempt launched by supporters of the fallen former Communist Party rising star Bo Xilai.

This is thought unlikely but as the world's second-biggest economy plays down the absence of its future leader, and struggles to contain the feverish speculation, it may become increasingly difficult to project the image that all is well within the Party ahead of its leadership congress in October.