Chinese officials and state media remained silent Wednesday on the status of the country’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, as rumors continued to swirl regarding his 11-day absence from public life.
At a regular press briefing, China’s Foreign Ministry again refused to provide any details on the Chinese vice president, who was expected in just a few weeks to be named the country’s top leader for the next decade. Spokesperson Hong Lei deflected several reporters’ questions about Xi, saying he had no information.
Xi has not appeared at a number of meetings with foreign visitors during the past week, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He was last seen in public on September 1 at the opening of the fall semester of the Beijing Communist Party school.
Official silence on the matter has fueled speculation about Xi’s health. The most commonly repeated rumors suggest the 59-year-old suffered a mild stroke, heart attack, or back injury. But other more far-fetched rumors suggest he was the target of an assassination attempt by political foes.
While many observers point out that the speculation is unsubstantiated, they say the episode reveals the government’s crumbling sense of credibility among Chinese citizens and foreign media.
Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at City University in Hong Kong, said the Communist Party’s time-tested record of keeping the health conditions of its leaders a state secret may be hurting more than it is helping.
“This certainly reveals a lack of a sense of accountability to the domestic population and to the international community,” he said. “I’m sure many foreign ministry officials understand that this secrecy may in fact backfire and may generate unhealthy and unnecessary speculation, but I’m afraid that they simply cannot or dare not persuade top leaders to change their positions.”
But Cheng says there is no evidence to suggest the incident will affect the Communist Party’s tightly-controlled leadership transfer that is expected to begin in the coming weeks with a Communist Party Congress.
“We have detected no signs that there will be serious leadership changes before the 18th Party Congress,” he said. “Chinese leaders in the past five years or so have been working hard to prepare for a predictable succession process, and they certainly would like to keep it that way. ”
Meanwhile, rumors continue to fly in China, both on the street and on the country’s heavily censored microblogs. Jeremy Goldkorn, the editor of Danwei.com – a website about Chinese media and Internet – says Beijing’s team of web censors are working overtime to squash the rumors.
“As is the practice, they’re being scraped quite thoroughly. So it’s quite hard to find any of these rumors on the Chinese Internet,” he said. “The name of Xi Jinping, I think right now is still a blocked search term on Sina Weibo, the big Twitter-like service, and so is backache. So they’re doing a pretty good job of keeping it clean.”
Beijing continues to downplay the importance of Xi’s public absence, while questions remain regarding the future leadership of the world’s second largest economy.