TAIPEI, Taiwan — China’s so-called invisible man and presumed leader in waiting Xi Jinping shrugged off Western media speculation about a possible stroke, assassination attempt, a bitter internal power struggle and a host of other B-movie conspiracy theories when he made his first public appearance in two weeks today.
State-run Xinhua news agency ran a brief report saying Vice President Xi “arrived at China Agricultural University Saturday morning for activities marking this year’s National Science Popularization Day.”
As is often the case in the opaque world of Chinese politics, there was no mention of why he had been sidelined since his last public appearance on Sept. 1. Since then, the 59-year-old son of Communist Revolution royalty has canceled meetings with visiting US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, along with dignitaries from Singapore and Russia.
The official explanation was that he had suffered a back injury and needed time to recuperate. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said Xi’s cancelation of the Clinton meeting should not raise “unnecessary speculation.”
But unnecessary speculation was raised anyway, as foreign media began reporting on rumors (or perhaps starting them) that more sinister elements were at play.
“Chinese politics at the top is often like palace politics — typical of dynastic secrecy," wrote Lo Shiu Hing, a Chinese political expert at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, in an email to GlobalPost.
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"Journalists are prone to grasp any rumor so as to guess what happened with Xi," Lo said. "Palace politics in China versus relatively more transparent politics in the US explains this strange situation. Also, political sensationalism can attract the world’s attention. Using rumors to report on Xi was a natural and an irresistible tendency."
“The leadership transition is well underway. Xi’s chief of staff went to Vladivostok with Hu Jintao for the APEC meetings while all these rumors were unfolding," said Parris Chang, a former director of Penn State’s Center of East Asian Studies and author of Power and Policy in China.
"My feeling is that Xi wasn’t ill, but was preparing for the transition of power and felt the meetings with foreign leaders were mere protocol and weren’t as important as his preparations."
Analysts say that the simple answer to political questions in China is often the correct one. But in countries such as China, which is muddled and complex, or North Korea, which is often lampooned as a cartoonish state despite there being no boots on the ground to verify or report on individual stories, a slackening of journalistic license is to be expected.
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It’s this situation that results in users of Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, being routinely quoted in stories along with lower-level sources, such as unnamed editors of state-run media, for their take on the inner workings of the elite political playing field.
“In Beijing, all the other leaders were continuing on with their usual routines," said Chang. "There was nothing to suggest there was any kind of tension or problem in the capital. If there was a real problem then you would see a very different atmosphere there.”
Xi, who was also rumored to be suffering from cancer and rushed into emergency surgery, is expected to replace Hu Jintao as party chief at the CCP’s five-yearly congress. That congress is slated for October, although in line with usual protocol, no date has been announced.
What’s also usual protocol is China’s refusal to report on the health of its leaders and the blocking of their names on web and social media sites.
Chang says that the cancelation of Xi’s meeting with Clinton made political sense given that Hu Jintao is still running the policy of the world’s second largest economy. There is also an upcoming presidential race in the US, and Clinton is likely to step down as secretary of state.
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It also didn’t help that Clinton was roundly bashed by Chinese state-run media during her trip, with editorials painting the US as “a sneaky troublemaker” following Clinton’s visits to China’s South China Sea’s adversaries. Clinton also visited tiny Cook Islands before arriving in Beijing, a sojourn widely viewed in the Middle Kingdom as an attempt to curb China’s growing influence in the South Pacific.
“Xi is going to come out looking healthy and fresh," said Chang, a former deputy secretary general of Taiwan’s National Security Council. "China likes to see how the West responds to these situations and then just sits back and laughs at the gossip. At times, journalists in China are too arrogant by thinking they know more than people who have been following Chinese politics for decades."