Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, pictured last year, has not been seen… (Feng Li, AFP/Getty Images )
BEIJING — Compared with other Chinese officials who have inexplicably dropped out of view over the decades, either because of ill health or shifting political winds, Vice President Xi Jinping's 10-day absence from the public stage has been but a blip.
An ailing Premier Li Peng wasn't seen for about seven weeks in spring of 1993, while Huang Ju, a vice premier, vanished for five weeks in 2006. Deng Xiaoping disappeared for about three months after student demonstrations in 1986, and he took a 24-day breather amid the uprising that culminated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
But this is a year in which China has seen a number of seemingly far-fetched Internet rumors that were later borne out: Rising political star Bo Xilai's aide fled to a U.S. Consulate and ratted on his boss; Bo's wife was convicted of murdering a British citizen; and in an unrelated case, a top presidential aide was demoted, perhaps not coincidentally, after his son crashed his Ferrari in Beijing.
So appetites for the next tantalizing morsel have been running high. And what could be more intriguing than the unexplained absence of Xi, who's been tapped to take over for President Hu Jintao at a Communist Party Congress expected to start next month.
The rumblings began last week after Xi, 59, missed a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. A U.S. official said a back injury was to blame. With no official comment from the Chinese government, and no public appearances by Xi since Sept. 1, waves of reports on Chinese exile news websites and in the Hong Kong press quickly ratcheted up the speculation: He had been hospitalized after a car accident, maybe a heart attack, or even an assassination attempt.
"A lot of things that people wouldn't ever have believed have come true this year," said Ho Pin, who runs the New York-based Mingjing News website. "The situation in Beijing has become spooky, and people don't understand what's going on. That's why people are imagining what has happened to Xi."
By Tuesday, after the rumors had percolated into the Western press, a bit of retrenchment seemed to be in the offing even if no further information was forthcoming from the government.
Boxun, a website operated from North Carolina by an electrical engineer-turned-journalist named Watson Meng, retracted its initial article about an assassination attempt and said Xi was suffering from exhaustion after working 15-hour days preparing for the leadership transition.
Boxun also said that a key leadership meeting would kick off in 10 days. That's an indication, Meng said in an interview, that the political transition was proceeding.
"The cancellation of the meeting with Hillary was not normal," Meng added. "But the indications are now that Xi's health problems are not so serious."
Xi was last seen in public addressing students on Sept. 1 at the opening of the fall semester of Communist Party's Central Party School in Beijing.
The Communist Party has been eager to project an image of stability as it heads into the political transition, yet has found itself repeatedly buffeted by events that indicate the contrary. The Bo family scandal continues to reverberate, with Bo's ultimate fate and that of his chief aide still to be determined. Meanwhile, the economy is showing signs of slowing faster than anticipated.
Lack of transparency on Xi's situation has added to perceptions among those used to reading the tea leaves from Beijing that all is not smooth sailing. Yet Ho noted that if Xi's condition was truly grave, other top officials would have been recalled to Beijing. Instead, he said, Hu had been at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Russia, top legislator Wu Bangguo was in Iran and another senior leader, Li Changchun, has been in Sichuan.
"As far as I know, all the chief officials are functioning normally," Ho said.
But Jin Zhong, a political analyst in Hong Kong, said, "Just because the other Chinese leaders are going about their business as usual, it doesn't mean we can rule out some political intrigue." Acting as if nothing was amiss, he said, "would be the best way to cover up a political struggle."
"This year, Xi has appeared in public frequently, every one to two days," Jin said. "So for him to disappear for over nine days is something special."
China's government has not announced an official start date for the leadership meeting or the 18th Party Congress, at which Xi's elevation is slated to occur. But Jin agreed with assessments that the full leadership transition was on track to happen next month.
Back before China had assumed such a large role in world economic and political affairs and before the huge growth of the Internet allowed news and rumor to spread virally, China's leadership had more latitude to allow leaders like Deng to step out of public view for extended periods. Now, there is more pressure from both within China and the outside world to quickly disclose information.
But Ho said the nearer the Party Congress gets, the more difficult it is for the bureaucracy to respond to such incidents even if they wanted to. Officials are paralyzed by fear of making a misstep, he theorized, so it's safer to do nothing.
"Right now, not only in Beijing, but also in the provincial cities, the officials have stopped working because this is a political transition period and people are waiting," said Ho. "Xi hasn't become effective yet, but Hu is retiring, so no one wants to take the responsibility.
"I've heard lots of businessmen and officials telling me they wish the 18th Party Congress would hurry up and finish," he added, "so that things can start working again."
Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.