Unconfirmed reports at the time said Xi may have thrown out his back and was recuperating. The cancellation of the Clinton meeting was also seen as a possible snub, to show the Beijing leadership’s pique with the Obama administration’s China policies.
But Monday’s cancellation with Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt sparked a fresh round of speculation, with possible explanations for Xi’s absence ranging from more serious health concerns to possible instability and intrigue at the very top of the Communist Party hierarchy.
The Chinese government continued Tuesday to duck questions about Xi’s whereabouts. “I have no information on that to provide to you,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei when asked about Xi’s health at a regular press briefing in the afternoon.
When asked whether Xi was even still alive, Lei replied tersely, “I hope you will raise serious questions.”
When other reporters tried pressing him on Xi again, Lei shut them down. “I have already answered the question for your colleagues,” he said. “Next question.”
China’s Communists are due to meet later this year to name a new president — widely expected to be Xi — and new members of the now nine-member Politburo Standing Committee that effectively runs the country. But remarkably, as of now, no date has been announced for the conclave. That has added to the sense that the behind-the-scenes jockeying remains intense and that not all is settled among the leadership’s competing factions and personalities as they dole out the top positions.
At the very least, Xi’s disappearance from public view and the unofficial, conflicting accounts of his absence starkly illustrate the challenge facing China’s Communist rulers as they try to stage-manage an anachronistically closed and secretive transition process for the first time in the age of microblogging and social media. Chinese leaders remain opaque and largely loathe even rudimentary forms of transparency — particularly when it comes to their health. But in the absence of real information, the microblogs have swiftly stepped into the void.
“You see the tension, with elite politics not changing as fast as society is changing,” said Cheng Li, an expert on China’s leadership with the Brookings Institution in Washington. Now, he said, “there’s a lack of transparency, so we end up with all these” rumors.
The most oft-repeated speculation, which first surfaced on overseas media sites, was that the portly Xi threw out his back, either while swimming, playing soccer or, according to one version, playing golf.