China’s leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping has set off a storm of rumours after cancelling several meetings and failing to turn up at scheduled public events for over a week.
A source close to the Beijing leadership now claim 59-year-old Vice President Xi is ‘unwell’ after hurting his back during his daily swim.
Xi Jinping called off several meetings with visiting foreign leaders and dignitaries over the past week, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Prime Ministers of Singapore and Denmark.
Despite the rumours of ill health the Chinese government has declined to give an official explanation to the absence of Xi, who is due to take over the presidency in March next year.
The silence is in keeping with decades of official secrecy over the health of senior leaders, a tradition viewed in the West as incompatible with China’s position as a progressively modern state and emerging superpower.
When Xi’s absence was first notice a source claimed: ‘Xi injured his back when he went for his daily swim,’ but the source declined to give further details on the injury, including exactly when and where the incident took place.
Another source, citing people close to Xi, said: ‘He’s unwell, but it’s not a big problem.’
On Tuesday, the foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei was asked whether Xi is in good health, but only said he had no information to give, and declined to answer further questions on the matter.
The lack of official explanation has fuelled Internet speculation surrounding Xi’s condition.
China’s popular Twitter-like microblogging site Sina Weibo blocked searches for Xi’s name, as is common with top leaders, but users as usual found ways to skirt the restrictions, referring to Xi as ‘the crown prince’.
‘What’s up with the crown prince? He’s vanished for the last 10 days or so and the whole world is wondering where he is,’ wrote one user.
Xi had been scheduled to meet visiting Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt on Monday afternoon for a photo opportunity, but the event did not take place.
However, Thorning-Schmidt said that a meeting with Xi had never been on her schedule for her visit.
‘I think there has been a slight misunderstanding,’ she told Reuters.
‘I would, of course, very much like to see him [Xi] and I think I will see him at some stage, perhaps on my next visit to China, but he was never in my programme which we released on Friday, so there shouldn’t be anything new in my not seeing him.’
The foreign ministry’s website shows Xi’s most recent public appearance was at a ceremony at the ruling Communist Party’s Central Party School in Beijing on September 1.
The rumours about Xi come at a tempestuous time for Chinese politics. The 18th Communist Party Congress, at which China’s next top leaders including Xi are likely to be unveiled, is set to take place in October.
Earlier this year, senior politician Bo Xilai, once seen as a candidate for the top rung of party leadership, was suspended from the Politburo and his wife convicted of murdering a British businessman. The wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence last month.
In another scandal this month, a senior ally of President Hu Jintao was demoted after sources said the ally’s son was involved in a deadly crash involving a luxury sports car.
Last year, the official Xinhua news agency was forced to come out with a one-line statement in English denying former President Jiang Zemin had died, following feverish online speculation and a report from a Hong Kong television station.