The hits kept coming, especially when Clinton’s meeting with Xi Jinping — the man expected to replace Hu in the fall as China’s top leader — was abruptly canceled.
Yang did not explain the cancellation publicly but warned against using it as an excuse for “unnecessary speculation,” which only fueled more speculation.
Two news outlets quoted anonymous U.S. officials as saying that the Chinese had cited a problem with Xi’s back. But some diplomats questioned whether that private explanation could be fully trusted.
One explanation for the tensions on both sides is the simultaneous leadership transition underway — with a presidential election in the United States and a similarly brutal competition for the handful of seats on China’s ruling council that has been cloaked in secrecy.
One of the only signs of the titanic struggle rumored to be going on between factions of the Communist Party here is the recent string of scandals that some contenders have used to edge out rivals for the top seats and strengthen their own position.
Against that backdrop, the former police chief and accused defector Wang Lijun has played a central role. Wang, whom some consider ruthless, triggered China’s biggest political scandal in two decades when he rushed to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu in February, reportedly telling American officials that the wife of his boss, powerful party chief Bo Xilai, had killed a British businessman.
In a system in which the party tightly controls everything that is remotely political or that threatens its grip on power, several analysts and former diplomats said, it is very likely that the timing of the charges against Wang while Clinton was still in China was intentional and required approval by top Chinese leaders.
But what message it was meant to convey remained open to interpretation.
U.S. officials said they received no warning that the charges were imminent even as they met with most of China’s highest-ranking officials. But the American officials added that during their visit, they sensed anxiety over the upcoming leadership transfer.
China’s leaders are said to be eager to deal with the remaining scandals before the party congress later this year, at which the country’s new ruling council will be announced.
Despite the difficult meetings, setbacks and mixed messages, Clinton stuck to a conciliatory tone throughout Wednesday.
“We are convinced that our countries gain far more when we cooperate with each other than when we descend into unhealthy competition,” she said at a midday news conference. “We will never agree on all matters — no countries do. The key is to manage our differences, deal openly with misunderstandings when they do occur, and remain transparent and clear with each other.”
Jia Lynn Yang contributed to this report.