Xi Jinping, slated to be China’s next leader, has gone missing. China’s vice president canceled appointments with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Singapore’s prime minister last week, and now he has completely disappeared from public view. Perhaps the worst sign is that on Saturday Xi missed an emergency meeting of the all-important Central Military Commission.
Officials say the cancellation of Xi’s sit-down with Clinton was due to a normal “adjustment of itinerary,” but no one is buying that line. There are competing outside explanations for his startling disappearance from public view. Xi, according to various assessments, hurt his back swimming, suffered an injury playing soccer, or had a heart attack. The latest theory is that he has developed Bell’s palsy, a nervous disorder.
Other observers say Xi had been preoccupied by the press of domestic business. For instance, some have suggested that Xi snubbed Clinton to go to Shenzhen to meet Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, Leung Chun-ying. Wang Xiangwei, the editor of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, debunked this particular rumor, however, by showing that Xi did not in fact meet Leung because Leung remained in Hong Kong on the day in question.
By far the most inflammatory rumor, originally posted on the Boxun citizen-journalism website, is that Xi and He Guoqiang, another member of the Politburo Standing Committee, were wounded in coordinated assassination attempts. Other rumors had it that Mr. He was actually killed. In both versions, security forces loyal to the now-disgraced Bo Xilai were behind the attempts. Mr. He has also been out of view since August 28th, and that too is strange. Boxun took down the story within two hours of its posting.
These assassination stories cannot be true—can they?—but they are similar to the reports that the vice president in March narrowly escaped an assassin’s bullet inside Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party leadership compound in the center of Beijing.
Of course, no one outside a tight circle in Beijing knows what is going on. Xi and He could turn up at any time—or never be seen again.
Intriguingly, Jiefangjun Bao, a newspaper controlled by the People’s Liberation Army, recently seems to be devoting an unusual amount of space to Hu Jintao, China’s current leader and sometime adversary of Xi. There’s no secret that the vice president was not Hu’s first choice as his successor. Li Keqiang, slated to become the next premier, was Hu’s pick to lead the so-called Fifth Generation.
Xi, on the other hand, was acceptable to all factions in the increasingly divided Communist Party. Moreover, Comrade Jinping had the advantage of not being from Hu’s Communist Youth League faction—unwritten rules say no faction can produce two leaders in a row. Might the Jiefangjun Bao stories mean that, with Xi Jinping incapacitated, Hu will continue to rule China with the military’s support?
These days, little can be ruled out, as China has become the land of the wildly improbable. Although everyone insists that Xi’s spot in the new leadership lineup is secure, there is no such thing as a sure thing in Chinese politics, especially at this moment. Only when the new Standing Committee emerges from the curtain at the First Plenum of the 18thCentral Committee, which occurs immediately after the 18th Party Congress, will we know for sure who will be ruling China. The Congress, which now meets every five years, will take place within a few months if the party adheres to prior practice.
Then again, with the way things are going, we should not assume there will be an 18th Congress—or even a People’s Republic as we have known it—by the end of the year.
China is unstable.