Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Absence of China's presumptive new leader stokes rumor mills

BEIJING — The strange disappearance from public view of China's presumptive new leader is turning a year that was supposed to showcase the Communist Party's stability into something of an unfortunate year.

Over the past week, the new leader, Xi Jinping, has missed at least three scheduled meetings with foreign dignitaries, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday and the prime minister of Denmark on Monday.

Speculation that his health, either physical or political, has prevented him from making public appearances is rife on the Chinese Internet, but there has been no official explanation for his absence. He was last seen in public Sept. 1.

Xi's unexplained absences are especially conspicuous on the eve of what is supposed to be China's once-in-a-decade transfer of power. It also adds to a litany of woes that have disrupted the Communist Party's hopes for a seamless political transition.

Two unusual political scandals have sidelined people considered contenders for seats on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, most recently including a close ally of President Hu Jintao's. China's economy has fallen into an unexpectedly deep slump, confounding government forecasts for a measured slowdown.

Xi was designated as the presumptive heir to Hu as the leader of the Communist Party, head of state and chairman of the top military oversight body in 2007.

On Wednesday, after Xi did not meet Clinton and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, diplomats said privately that he had a bad back.

On Monday, the situation got odder. Foreign journalists had been invited to a photo opportunity between Xi and Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark. But the Foreign Ministry denied that any such meeting had been scheduled and said other Chinese officials would meet the Danish leader.

"We have told everybody everything," said a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei.

Adding to the uncertainty is that party leaders have also yet to announce a date for the 18th Party Congress, the event to mark the retirement of this generation of leaders and the accession of the next, though it is supposed to take place as soon as next month.

Party congresses are held every five years, generally in October. In 2007, the year of the previous congress, the October date had been announced by August.

For now, rumors are replacing real information about Xi. Some have it that he hurt his back swimming or playing soccer. Less reliable was a rumor that he was hurt in an auto accident when a military official tried to injure or kill Xi in a revenge plot; the report was later retracted.

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