11 Sep 2012

Where is Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping?

One of the most powerful men in the largest country on the planet has gone missing, with rumours as to the cause of his disappearance ranging from a sports injury to assassination.

Xi Jinping, the heir-apparent to the presidency of China, has not attended scheduled public events for more than three weeks, fuelling speculation as to his whereabouts. In the past week Xi has missed meetings with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, prime minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong, and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

In October the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party will take place – and will lead to a complete overhaul in the politburo standing committee of the Communist Party, the nine-strong group at the top of the Communist Party’s leadership. Under Chinese leadership rules, leaders must retire at the next national congress after they have turned 67. This year seven of the nine will retire.

Jinping is one of the two remaining Chinese leaders in the standing committee, and is expected to be named president in October – making him the most powerful political leader in China. However, his disappearance has fuelled a wide range of rumours and has cast a spotlight on the secretive area of China’s leadership.

China’s government has refused to release an official statement on Xi’s whereabouts, though sources close to the government said he is suffering from a back injury.

The Communist Party’s spokesman, Hong Lei, refused to comment on Xi’s health when asked by journalists. His response to questions on the vice-president’s health was: “I hope you can ask a serious question.”

One source close to the government said: “Xi injured his back when he went for his daily swim,” and another said: “He’s unwell, but it’s not a big problem.”

Silence and speculation

However the lack of information – in keeping with the Communist Party’s tradition of silence over the health of its leaders – has led to intense speculation on social media.

Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, has blocked searches for Xi’s name. Chinese users of the micro-blogging site have taken to refering to Xi as the “crown prince” to navigate around the block.

One user wrote: “What’s up with the crown prince? He’s vanished for the last 10 days or so and the whole world is wondering where he is.” Rumours on the site have ranged from Xi having suffered a stroke to a football injury.

The most salacious rumour, however, is one that questions the political machinations within the party’s elite. Users have suggested that disgraced former politburo member Bo Xilai may have been involved in Xi’s disappearance.

Bo was ousted from the politburo earlier this year after his wife, Gu Kailai, was jailed for murdering British businessman Neil Haywood. Bo was expected to ascend to the standing committee at the national congress.

Bo Xilai (Reuters)

The most powerful people in the world

China’s Communist Party is run by an executive body called the politburo of the Communist Party of China, which currently has 25 members. Within this body is an inner sanctum of the most powerful of China’s leaders, the standing committee of the Communist Party of China.

Xi Jinping is a member of this oligarchical elite of nine Chinese leaders, is vice-president of the party, and was the hot favourite to succeed the country’s leader, Hu Jintao, as president.

Jintao, along with Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, and five other members of the standing committee, must retire from the leadership of the party at its next national congress because of leadership age restrictions.

The national congress is the five-yearly meeting of the Communist Party which determines its leadership. Jinping is expected to take over as president, the highest position, with Li Keqiang, currently vice-premier, expected to takeover from Jiabao.

The other members of the Standing Committee are:

  • Wu Bangguo, chairman of the standing committee and second most powerful man in the party.

  • Jia Qinglin, the chairman of the national committee of the Chinese people’s political consultative conference, a Communist Party controlled political advisory body.

  • Li Changchun, chairman of the central guidance commission for building spiritual civilisation, China’s ideological steering body.

  • He Guoqiang, secretary of the central commission for discipline inspection, China’s Communist Party controlled corruption watchdog.

  • Zhou Yongkang, secretary of the central politics and law commission, China’s security chief.

The age restrictions on leadership in China gives an opportunity for younger members of the party to progress to its highest ranks. With seven members of the Party retiring, one of those expected to transcend from the wider Politburo to the standing committee was Bo Xilai.

However, Xilai was disgraced this year after his wife, Gu Kailai, was jailed for the murder of British businessman Neil Haywood. Xilai was suspended from the Politburo following a vote of the standing committee. Xilai’s closest ally in the standing committee was Yongkang, the only standing committee member to vote against his suspension.