Still No Signs of China's Future Top Leader

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. The Chinese chain of command is in the midst of big changes. The leadership of the country is about to switch leaders in a usually secretive handover of power. China's Premier Wen Jiabao gave what will probably be his last public address today, but it's a Chinese official who didn't make an appearance at the World Economic Forum that's got people talking. Leader-in-Waiting Xi Jinping has gone missing or at least he hasn't shown up for any scheduled public events in more than a week. The World's China correspondent Mary Kay Magistad is at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin. As for Xi Jinping's whereabouts Mary Kay, wild speculation right now; rumors and semi-official excuses. Tell us what you've been hearing.

Mary Kay Magistad: Well, there are all kinds of rumors that are floating around. One is that he injured his back swimming or possibly playing soccer. Other rumors are that he had a mild heart attack or perhaps a stroke. One of the more wild rumors is that he was in a car accident and that it was actually an assassination attempt by an ally of Bo Xilai, the senior communist party official who was taken down earlier this year because his wife killed a British businessman and also because the party thought that he was getting a little too big for his britches, but the fact is we don't know. The party has said nothing. The government has said nothing when asked about what's going on with Xi Jinping. China's foreign ministry spokesman today, when asked repeatedly about is he in okay health? Did anything happen to him? He said, "I wish you'd ask a serious question."

Werman: And in the meantime, the Premier Wen Jiabao gave this speech today. How big a distraction was Xi's absence from what Wen Jiabao was saying?

Magistad: Well, Wen Jiabao speaks at the World Economic Forum every year and he always speaks about the economy. The people who were at the forum were there to hear him speak about China's economy, but there was certainly a light buzz going on throughout the day where people were speculating and joking and just trying to figure out what's really going on. There were hundreds of people in the room who were listening to Wen. It was almost like a work report going through a list of accomplishments that his government has been able to achieve in it's ten years in power and it was interesting. He was a little defensive in tone, compared to previous years. I mean, I've sat through several of these and in the past he's been actually quite critical of the structure of economic growth in China.

Werman: If Xi Jinping is the Leader-in-Waiting and for some reason he doesn't reappear, who's next on the list?

Magistad: Really good question. Usually there is no protocol here. This is only the second time in modern Chinese history that there is to be a peaceful transition from one set of leaders to the other in some sort of a coordinated fashion. The last time the top couple of leaders had been anointed, even by Deng Xiaoping while he was still alive. This time, it's the collective leadership that had to do horse trading amongst themselves to decide who they could all live with and they decided Xi Jinping was the guy. The person who's going to be stepping in as Premier, replacing Wen Jiabao, is expected to be Li Changchun. He's a more controversial figure and there are many people within the party elite who would prefer not to see him as the top leader. So it could be a little bit like throwing the cards up in the air, but just a very small deck of cards with those who are in the decision-making circle doing a little bit more horse trading to figure out what they do next, but it must be said we're not at that point yet. We don't know what's happening with Xi Jinping. We've got to wait and see whether he actually shows up in the coming days.

Werman: Now, moving away from the Chinese leadership beat, quickly Mary Kay. The Chinese government today accused Japan of stealing disputed islands in the east China Sea. The Japanese government, apparently, says it bought them for about 30 million dollars. On the surface it looks like a real estate deal, but of course it's much more than that. What happened there?

Magistad: Well, yeah, and in fact Japan has controlled these islands, either Japan or the United States, when it was occupying Japan after World War Two, has physically controlled these islands for 60-70 years. The Chinese government claims that these islands were an ancient part of China, but the Chinese government has been making these claims about islands and atolls and pieces of rock stretching as far as 500 miles off the coast of Chinese land. So some of China's neighbors, the Philippines, Vietnam, who claim the seas that are much closer to their shores, think that this is patently absurd and the Japanese think so too. In the case of these islands, there are actually both to Japan and China, but Japan has been physically controlling them. In this case, what has happened is that a Japanese family had technical title to these islands. A right-wing, nationalistic, local politician had said that he was going to buy the islands and develop them as a sort of in-your-face-move to China. These are ours and we'll do what we want to with them and the national government of Japan moved in to say, "We're going to buy the islands and not develop them." Thinking that this was a way to cool things down. Well, the Chinese government doesn't see it that way.

Werman: The World's China correspondent, Mary Kay Magistad, at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin, China. Mary Kay, thanks as always.

Magistad: Thank you, Marco.