Where is China's next leader? Xi Jinping mystery deepens
Rumour mill in overdrive as vice-president cancels meetings with foreign dignitaries without reason
CHINA is on the cusp of a once-in-a-decade leadership change but the man expected to take over as president has not been seen in the last 10 days.
Xi Jinping, the 59-year-old vice-president tipped to succeed President Hu Jintao later this year, was last seen in public at a Communist Party training academy on 1 September.
Since then, he has cancelled meetings with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
He also missed an emergency meeting on Sunday of the Central Military Commission, of which he is a vice-chairman, called to discuss recovery work following the earthquake in Yunnan and Guizhou, reports ABC News.
With no official government explanation for his absence, the Chinese rumour mill has gone into overdrive. China's microblogging site Weibo has blocked Xi's full name from its site, a measure that has been used for China's leaders in the past. Searches for 'Jinping' in Mandarin were not blocked but a number of journalists suggested that censors were busy deleting posts about him.
One source close to the Beijing leadership told Reuters that Xi had injured his back when he went for his daily swim. Another source, citing people close to Xi, said: "He's unwell, but it's not a big problem."
Others have speculated that Xi has had a heart attack or stroke. One overseas Chinese website, Boxun.com, claimed that Xi was recuperating from a car accident – possibly an assassination attempt - in which he was sandwiched between two jeeps and had lost consciousness. But commentators are unanimous that this seems fanciful and the website later retracted the story.
Kenneth Lieberthal, a former White House official, told the Wall Street Journal that "something is amiss", otherwise the Chinese government would have found an opportunity for him to be seen.
Christopher Johnson, a former China analyst at the CIA, predicted last night that Xi has just a couple more days to make a public appearance before public pressure forces the Chinese government to at least issue a statement explaining his whereabouts.
Beijing has been shaken with political scandal over the last few months, culminating in the downfall of the high-profile politician Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai, who received a suspended death sentence for killing the English businessman Neil Heywood.