- By Mark Jia
BEIJING — Where is Xi?
On this, the eleventh day since Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping has disappeared from public view, speculation has yet to abate over the senior leader’s condition and whereabouts. The 59 year-old heir apparent has not been spotted since Sept. 1, causing many to wonder whether the absence is merely health-related, or if it is tied into the leadership succession next month. Over the past two weeks, scheduled meetings between Xi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong were abruptly canceled. When asked to confirm whether Xi was alive, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei retorted, "I hope you have serious questions to ask."
As expected, the Chinese government’s information blackout (which is no isolated incident – see the government’s period of silence over the rumored death of former President Jiang Zemin a year ago) has only fanned the flames of speculation over what has actually befallen the ascendant leader. Censors have clamped down tightly on Chinese social media, blocking searches for "vice-president" or "Xi Jinping," while rapidly removing related posts on Sina Weibo — China’s version of twitter. One Weibo user reports that his link to a Wall Street Journal article on Xi’s disappearance was deleted within ten minutes of publication. Chinese netizens have sought to circumvent censors by using the pseudonym "crown prince" — though this was later blocked as well. Currently, the best way to search for Xi-related news is by inputting his given name, Jinping, which censors have not targeted just yet.
Rumors accounting for his disappearance range from the sensational to the mundane. Some allege Xi was hurt in a car crash or even an assassination attempt by forces from a rival faction, fueled by a story suggesting as much that was published and later retracted by the gossip site Boxun. "Jinping hasn’t emerged in ten days. Does this mean a big domestic crisis is about to hit China??" one netizen asked. "Internal Party struggles are incredibly heated!" another poster remarked, "…[Xi] Jinping has disappeared for so many days, now you know why." Others have suggested that Xi hurt his back while swimming or playing soccer in Zhongnanhai, the senior leadership compound in Beijing. This aligns with the most recent account offered by Reuters, which quoted two anonymous sources suggesting that Xi had indeed injured himself while swimming.
Most of the listings that pop up after searching "Jinping" on Weibo are either expressions of sympathy for the leader’s wellbeing, or plain, inoffensive queries as to why the vice-president has yet to emerge. More "inflammatory" posts have probably already been censored out. "X.i. jinping, where are you?" asked one concerned netizen. "[W]hy haven’t we seen you for so many days? Are you okay? What happened?" Another post asks simply: "Jinping, where are you? You’ve almost been gone for 8 days, even the New York Times is looking for you…" With tensions running high over the disputed Diaoyutai islands, Weibo users have also combined their pleas for Xi’s whereabouts with demand for Chinese escalation against Japan. In response to an article about Japan’s "nationalization" of the islands, one netizen urged that, "Jinping, you should attack! We will support you."
The clock, however, continues to tick. The longer Xi waits before emerging, the greater the domestic and international speculation over the severity of what has befallen him. Some netizens, who have seen this drama play out many times before, have expressed weariness over the government’s default approach to handling incidents like this. "Typical in a year of Chinese top political circle mysteries," one poster commented. "I’m sure we’ll find it less exciting if our glorious party just tells us what is going on honestly." "A back injury from swimming? Football?" another poster asked, "They try so hard to hide this. At least this sounds like he’s only human. But of course, being human is not acceptable for Chinese party leadership."
Mark Jia is a graduate student in politics at Oxford, where he is a Rhodes Scholar.