Xi Jinping: The leader who isn't there

China's leader-in-waiting has not been seen for 11 days, and the lack of official information about his fate is prompting wild speculation


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 yesterday 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 expected 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 that he has been laid low by an injury he sustained while playing football. Others have suggested he has been hurt in a car crash. Staff at Beijing's 301 Military Hospital refuted claims that Mr Xi was receiving treatment there. Yesterday, two sources told Reuters news agency that Mr Xi had merely injured his back while swimming, while another anonymous source insisted: "He's unwell, but it's not a big problem."

Commentator 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 due to diabetes, kidney and circulatory problems, the government told the people he had a "cold".

In July last year, speculation that China's retired leader Jiang Zemin had died forced the state's Xinhua news agency to issue a statement to insist he was alive. And in April, the official organ of the People's Liberation Army was forced to put out a message urging military personnel to ignore online gossip and prepare for the "ideological struggle" of the leadership transition.

The government's own version of some events may shed light on why some of its citizens are inclined to put stock in less-than-credible rumours. For example, when Mao Zedong's hand-picked heir apparent, Lin Biao, disappeared in 1971, many raised questions about reports that he had died in a mysterious plane crash.

Far-fetched conspiracy theories about Mr Xi have been plentiful in recent days, including one which suggests he has been injured in an assassination attempt launched by supporters of the fallen former Communist Party rising star Bo Xilai, whose wife Gu Kailai was recently convicted for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.

Steve Yui-Sang Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, believes the assassination attempt story is unlikely to be true, not least because security in Beijing would have been heightened in the aftermath of any attack. He argues that it is not Mr Xi's absence which poses a problem for China – but the lack of information about it.

"Falling ill or suffering from some sort of injury a month or longer before a scheduled succession is not that big a deal and certainly should not be a crisis," said Mr Tsang. "This is becoming a big deal because the lack of transparency and the low credibility of the Party in the public mind provides scope for rumour-mongering," he said. "Until Xi is well enough to appear in public, it will be hard for the Party to stop all rumours and speculations."

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

Xi Jinping CV

China's Vice-President Xi Jinping was born in Beijing in 1953, and is the son of the revolutionary Xi Zhongxun, one of the Communist Party's founding fathers. He is regarded as one of the Party's "princelings" and has held several key offices, including vice-chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, which controls the army. Mr Xi is tipped to succeed President Hu Jintao when he retires as head of the Communist Party at its congress, which is due to take place in October.

His wife, the singer Peng Liyuan, had – until fairly recently – been more famous than him. She has previously described him as frugal and down-to-earth. However, his extended family is believed to have business interests in companies with assets worth $376m.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn