By Michael Lipin
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping has failed to appear for a scheduled meeting with a visiting foreign dignitary for the third time in a week, fueling speculation about his health as Chinese leaders prepare for a transition of power.
China’s foreign ministry said last week that Xi would meet Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt in Beijing Monday, but that meeting did not happen.
Xi is widely expected to become China’s next president as part of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition that begins with a Communist Party congress later this year.
He was scheduled to hold talks with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last Wednesday, but those meetings were called off.
China’s foreign ministry attributed the cancelations to an “itinerary adjustment,” but it did not elaborate. Such schedule changes are unusual for Chinese leaders, whose meetings with high-ranking foreign officials typically are planned well in advance.
U.S. news media quote foreign diplomats as saying they were told Xi did not attend his September 5 meetings because of a back problem. Since then, rumors about his health have swamped Chinese blogs and other social media sites.
Xi’s last known public appearance was on September 1, when he spoke to students at a Beijing Communist Party school. The official Xinhua news agency published a photo of him at the opening ceremony of the school’s autumn semester.
Danish diplomats declined to confirm or deny that Xi was supposed meet Thorning-Schmidt. When asked about Xi’s whereabouts at the Chinese foreign ministry’s Monday news briefing, spokesman Hong Lei said the Danish prime minister would meet Chinese state councilors.
The spokesman made no mention of Xi.
Most of the Internet speculation about the Chinese vice president’s health focused on his back, with some people suggesting he hurt himself playing soccer or swimming. Other rumors were more sinister, suggesting Xi was hurt in a car crash that may not have been an accident.
None of the rumors has been substantiated. China has a long record of secrecy regarding the health and internal rivalries of its leaders.