China's President-To-Be Mysteriously Absent

The man in line to be China's next President has missed a number of official functions recently — leading to speculation about his health. Xi Jinping who's expected to take over the presidency next month, has not been seen in public for the last ten days. Comments on Chinese microblogging sites suggested he might be severely ill, or had been injured in a car crash. However wire reports quoting unnamed official sources say Xi has injured his back while swimming, and is avoiding public events while he recovers.

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The man likely to be China's next leader has vanished, at least from the public eye. He hasn't made an appearance for 10 days and his conspicuous absence has unleashed a wave of rumor and speculation.

Our Beijing correspondent, Louisa Lim, reports on the mysterious case of the missing politician.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: It all started with Hillary Clinton. Last Wednesday, she was supposed to meet Vice Premier Xi Jinping but that was canceled. He then missed an important military meeting; then his photo call with the Danish prime minister was called off. On China's excitable Internet, the rumors are flying, from backache caused by football to a mild heart attack, all the way to assassination attempts.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei was today asked if Xi was still alive.

HONG LEI: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I hope you can ask more serious questions, was his terse response.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: China's state-run media issued reports about Xi's visit to the party school. But it turns out that happened early last week. Steve Tsang, from the University of Nottingham, says it's possible Xi hasn't appeared because he's not in a fit state to do so.

STEVE TSANG: The most likely scenario would be that Xi Jinping is suffering from a medical condition which make it impossible for the Communist Party to parade him on television. But because the party does not enjoy very strong credibility in terms of telling the truth, anything short of seeing him on television is not likely to be convincing enough.

LIM: The party's credibility has been dented by scandals, including the sensational murder trial of the wife of Bo Xilai, an ambitious politician. She was found guilty of murdering a British citizen. But her husband's fate is still in limbo. Andrew J. Nathan, from Columbia University, conjectures that may be keeping Xi Jinping busy.

ANDREW NATHAN: A theory I have is that Xi Jinping is busy working out, figuring out, negotiating a solution to the Bo Xilai case.

LIM: One senior politician was on show today, China's premier at the World Economic Forum's annual Meeting of the New Champions in the city of Tianjin. In his speech, Wen Jiabao mentioned he was about to leave government after 45 years of service. He didn't mention his successors. He focused on the future of the economy.

WEN JIABO: (Through translator) The giant ship of the Chinese economy will sail ahead fast and reach the shore of a brighter future.

LIM: But the economy is starting to feel the impact of the political tensions. According to a new survey by the ManpowerGroup, the forecast for employment growth in China is slowing faster than anywhere else in Asia. David Arkless from Manpower says uncertainty surrounding the power transition can't be discounted.

DAVID ARKLESS: Political changes of that size and import really reflect on business sentiment. So I think Chinese companies and foreign companies here are adopting, in the third and fourth quarter, somewhat more of a cautious approach.

LIM: And so, the whole country is poised in wait-and-see mode. Whether Xi is sidelined by a power struggle, an illness or other reasons, the continuing lack of information is proving damaging in itself.

Louisa Lim NPR News, Tianjin.

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