China Leader's Absence Could Spell Political Trouble

Rumors still swirling over the absence of China's presumptive leader-in-waiting are being met by official stonewalling. All this comes in the run-up to a crucial Communist Party meeting, where the party's new leader will be named. Now fears are mounting this could get off-track.

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China's presumptive leader-in-waiting has not been seen in public for 13 days. He's cancelled meetings with dignitaries, including Hillary Clinton. Rumors are swirling. And all this comes in the run-up to a crucial Communist Party meeting, where he had been expected to take the party's top job. Now, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports, fears are mounting this could get off-track.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Where is China's crown prince? That's the question no one is allowed to ask. Xi Jinping's nickname is now censored as a search term on Internet microblogs. Other forbidden terms include back injury, Xi's car accident, and liver cancer - all rumors of what might have befallen China's likely next leader. Attempts to gain any type of clarity from the Foreign Ministry receive a stock response, voiced here through a translator.

HONG LEI: (Through translator) I have already answered such questions many times. Next question.

LIM: The current silence stands in stark contrast to what happened last year. Then the government took just one day to shoot down a rumor that former President Jiang Zemin had died. This time, however, there's been nothing, save one small mention of Xi sending condolences to the family of a deceased veteran. The black box of China's politics is firmly closed, even to those who've played advisory roles, like economist Li Daokui.

LI DAOKUI: I really don't know what's going on. I wish I knew more.

LIM: Should we be worried?

LI DAOKUI: I wouldn't worry. I don't know the routines of the senior policy makers. I would know better about the logic of their decision, the logic of economics. The personal routines, I don't know. Very complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: On Monday, a Chinese court handed down a verdict in a murder trial...

LIM: This follows a high-profile trial, when the wife of senior politician Bo Xilai was found guilty of murdering a British citizen. Bo has not been seen for months. That scandal - and Xi's disappearance - damage the image of the government and underline the weaknesses of China's political model, according to one political commentator in the U.S., Chen Pokong.

CHEN POKONG: (Through translator) This proves the system is not convincing. It proves the impossibility of the party's claims that it can achieve a peaceful transition of power. These two major events this year prove the system's failure and its bankruptcy. It must reform. It no longer has any credibility.

LIM: Xi Jinping is the son of a revolutionary, chosen to lead amid intense horse-trading. So far most analysts still believe he should be able to step into the top job. If not, Chen Pokong warns of political chaos.

CHEN POKONG: (Through translator) If the Chinese government were forced to change people, it would be a huge shock. There would be a reshuffle of political factions and they'd all be thrown into another political struggle.

LIM: That's a worst-case scenario at this stage. But as the days without any Xi sightings mount, so too are the fears.

ORVILLE SCHELL: It's worrisome, because this system here in China is very much predicated on certainty.

LIM: That's Orville Schell, a longtime China-watcher, now at the Asia Society.

SCHELL: One of its dangers is it's incredibly brittle. It doesn't have a lot of flexibility to absorb shocks. And symbols matter a lot. So if you have some disturbing symbol - like someone being sick or someone not able to continue on - these things tend to cause lots of consternation.

LIM: One indicator of crisis would be the delay of the all-important meeting, the 18th Party Congress. It was expected next month, but still no date has been set. One thing is clear: Despite China's surface modernity, its court politics remain shrouded in mystery, purposefully obscure to the masses.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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