A Chinese spokesman yesterday said he had no information about the status of Chinese Vice President and leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping (習近平), who dropped from sight 10 days ago and has canceled a series of meetings with foreign visitors.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said he had “no information in this regard” when asked about Xi’s condition and whereabouts at a news conference yesterday.
Asked whether Xi was still alive, Hong replied: “I hope you can ask more serious questions.”
Xi’s absence — and the complete lack of information from the government — has sent the Chinese rumor mill into overdrive, with most speculation focusing on a health crisis ranging from a sore back to a stroke. Some of the more fanciful tales involve a staged car crash as part of a political feud, although no evidence has been offered to back that up and the overseas Web site that had that report later backed away from it.
Xi injured his back when he went for his daily swim, a source close to the Beijing leadership said after Xi’s absence from the public stage was first noticed last week.
The source declined to give further details on the injury, including exactly when and where the incident took place.
Another source also said the injury happened when Xi went swimming.
A third source, citing people close to Xi, said: “He’s unwell, but it’s not a big problem.”
All three sources spoke on condition of anonymity.
The 59-year-old Xi was picked five years ago to succeed Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). Xi is due to take over as head of the Chinese Communist Party at a congress later this year.
Xi’s most recent public appearance was at the opening of the Communist Party training academy’s autumn session on Sept. 1. Since then, he has canceled meetings with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. On Sunday, he also missed an emergency meeting of the Central Military Commission, of which he is a vice chairman, called to discuss earthquake recovery work.
China’s popular microblogging site Sina Weibo blocked searches for Xi’s name, as is common with top leaders, but users as usual found ways to skirt the restrictions, referring to Xi as “the crown prince.”
“What’s up with the crown prince? He’s vanished for the last 10 days or so and the whole world is wondering where he is,” wrote one user.
Despite the panicky rumors, some of China’s top officials continued to travel outside Beijing — not what would be expected if the leadership was consumed with crisis. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) gave a speech in the northern port city of Tianjin, and his likely successor, Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), was visiting a northwestern region, according to state media reports.
Xi had been scheduled to meet Thorning-Schmidt on Monday afternoon for a photo opportunity, according to a media advisory that had been circulated on Sept. 5, but the event did not take place.
She told Reuters in an interview that a meeting with Xi had never been on her program, which was released on Friday.