Communist Leader’s Absence Sets Off Rumor Mills in China

September 10, 2012

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 annus horribilis.

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 last Wednesday and the prime minister of Denmark on Monday. So far officials have declined to provide an explanation for his absences.

That set off furious speculation on the Internet that the 59-year-old Mr. Xi’s health, either physical or political, has taken a turn for the worse. Some diplomats say they have heard that Mr. Xi suffered a pulled muscle while swimming or playing soccer. One media report, since retracted, had it that Mr. Xi was hurt in an auto accident when a military official tried to injure or kill him in a revenge plot. A well-connected political analyst in Beijing said in an interview that Mr. Xi might have had a mild heart attack.

Whatever the actual reason, Mr. Xi’s unexplained absences are 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 that a seamless political transition would send a signal of stability to the Chinese people and the world at large.

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. 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.

Mr. Xi was designated internally as the presumptive heir to Mr. Hu as the leader of the Communist Party, head of state and chairman of the top military oversight body in 2007, a full five years before he was expected to assume those posts. Party bosses have tried to name future leaders well in advance to prevent destabilizing jockeying for power. Smooth transitions are considered by many Chinese as a crucial test of the Communist Party’s longevity, and its leaders are eager to make the case that their authoritarian system can manage China better than a multiparty democracy could.

Analysts who follow Chinese politics say the transition is still likely to happen roughly along the planned lines. They also say that the core leadership team around Mr. Xi is slowly taking shape, with the lineup of the Standing Committee coming into focus as the congress draws near.

But at the very least, the atmospherics are turning out to be far messier than envisioned, with officials stumbling to maintain their usual careful choreography.

Last Wednesday, after Mr. Xi did not meet Mrs. 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 Mr. Xi and Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark. On Monday, however, 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.

While Chinese leaders often do not appear in public for long periods, canceling meetings with foreign dignitaries at the last minute is highly unusual. Adding to the uncertainty is the lack of an official statement of any kind, with observers speculating about car crashes and heart attacks.

“There’s every sort of crazy rumor about Xi’s health,” said a senior Chinese journalist, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity surrounding the case. “But no one is saying anything.”

Mr. Xi’s absence comes during a year when the Chinese political system has suffered serious blows.

This spring, the senior leader Bo Xilai vanished from view, and soon after, his wife was charged with murdering a British businessman. She was eventually tried and convicted over the summer, and his police chief, Wang Lijun, who has been accused of covering up the murder and other crimes, could face trial soon.

The scandal threatened to upset the complex political calculations that underlie the transition because Mr. Bo was popular among an influential wing of reform skeptics, many of whom condemn the country’s widening wealth gap. So even though Mr. Bo’s own case still has not been handled, sorting out his wife and closest associates was seen as an important step to get the transition back on track, implying that senior leaders were united on how to deal with Mr. Bo.

But no sooner had these problems been cleared than one of Mr. Hu’s closest allies was sidelined in unusual circumstances.

The ally, Ling Jihua, had headed the party’s General Office, a position similar to chief of staff. He was expected to be replaced so that Mr. Xi could bring in his own man, but he departed the position unusually early for a job that many saw as a demotion.

Some sources say it was because of a car crash earlier this year involving a Ferrari: his son was at the wheel and died, and two female companions were seriously injured. The episode exposed the fabulous wealth and extravagant lifestyles that some leaders’ family members acquire.

Adding to the uncertainty is that no date has been set for the party congress. Political experts expected the date to be set by now, contributing to speculation that the final lineup of the new leadership remains unsettled.

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.

“These are not signs that everything is going well,” said Bo Zhiyue, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore. “Negotiations seem to be going on.”

China’s political system has long been a black box, but its all-encompassing secrecy has begun to seem anachronistic as the country has become one of the world’s biggest economic, political and military powers.

“Authorities are worried about anything that may tarnish the transition,” said Joseph Y. S. Cheng, a political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong. “But this concern is working against their interests; they should come out with a clear statement” about Mr. Xi’s whereabouts.

Mr. Xi could appear publicly at any time and quash the speculation about his status. But for now rumors are replacing real information, with one of the most common being that he hurt his back playing sports. Popular Internet search sites have aggressively removed references to Mr. Xi and have even blocked searches for “back injury.”

One well-connected political analyst in Beijing said that Mr. Xi had suffered a mild heart attack but that it was not serious enough to prevent him from assuming China’s top positions.

“They say it won’t affect the party meeting,” the analyst said.

As if to assuage worries about Mr. Xi’s health, a newspaper on Monday ran a picture of Mr. Xi addressing students at the opening of the fall semester of the Central Party School. The photo and speech, however, were from Sept. 1, the last confirmed date of Mr. Xi’s being seen in public.

Patrick Zuo contributed research from Beijing. Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting from Beijing.