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Mystery absence of China's heir-apparent, Xi Jinping, sparks rumors

Where is China's Vice President? That's the question that can't be answered in Beijing. Even searching for the name of China's Vice President on Chinese social media has been blocked amid increasing rumors about his whereabouts. Xi Jinping has been missing from the public eye for more than week. ITV's Angus Walker reports.  

BEIJING -- Weeks before a once-in-a-decade political transition in China, the presumed future leader of China has fallen off the radar -- sparking wild rumors on micro-blogging sites about his health and whereabouts.

Xi Jinping, the man many assume will become the future president of China and chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, has not been seen in public now for more than a week. The 59-year-old was last seen on Sept. 1 while giving a speech at the Central Party School in Beijing.

Since then, Xi has cancelled a series of meetings with senior foreign leaders including Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

After Xi’s meeting with Clinton was cancelled late on the night of Sept. 4, rumors began to swirl around the U.S. press corps travelling with the Secretary that Xi had injured his back.

The Chinese government has since declined to give any updates on Xi’s health and present whereabouts. At yesterday’s regularly scheduled Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference, ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, was asked a series of questions about Xi to which he simply responded, "We have told everyone everything."

China Daily via Reuters

Xi Jinping (right) pictured in Beijing with South Korea's ambassador to China, Lee Kyu-hyung on August 31 - the day before his most recent public appearance.

According to a Reuters reporter who went to the regular Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei was asked if he could confirm that Xi was alive. His response: "I hope you can ask a serious question."

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The reticence of Chinese government officials and state media to comment has merely served as grist to the rumor mill, which has had ample material following an unusually eventful year of political intrigue on the mainland.

The very high profile fall of former Chongqing Party boss, Bo Xilai, ripped aside the political curtains and gave the Chinese public a peek at the country’s usually opaque process of governance. Besides systemic corruption and serious political abuses, Bo's downfall also exposed divisive political rivalries at the highest levels of the ruling Communist Party at a time when it was in the thick of choosing its future leadership.

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Now, with a new generation of Chinese leaders led by Xi poised to take over when the Communist Party’s 18th Congress meets later this year -- rumored sometime in mid-October -- Chinese regulators are especially cautious about news on their leaders-in-waiting.

News of Xi Jinping has been absent in recent days in Chinese state media and discussion on his whereabouts and condition have been silenced on microblogs like Weibo after Xi's name was blocked by censors. Some articles printed in online sections of foreign news websites were also apparently blocked.

In this news vacuum, rumors have begun to swirl around online about the fate of Xi. Most of the speculation focuses on the belief that Xi has some sort of back problem, with the reason for it ranging from a morning swimming session at Beijing leadership’s center, Zhongnanhai, to an ill-fated soccer game there too.    

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The rumors have also been more nefarious in nature. Boxun.com, a U.S.-based website dealing in Chinese news and political gossip, posted a wild, unconfirmed story that Xi had been injured in a car accident in which his vehicle had been struck by another car driven by military officers loyal to the disgraced Bo Xilai.

Boxun later retracted the story, but it has it not stopped similar unsubstantiated rumors from spreading online, forcing government censors to ceaselessly monitor China’s websphere for content that they characterize as harmful to national stability.

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It is not unusual that Chinese leaders would not show up in public for a few days or a week at a time and, of course, Xi could simply appear in public and quickly quash speculation about his health. After all, late last year former Chinese President Jiang Zemin made a rare appearance in public after Hong Kong media speculated that he had died.

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However, Jiang, while still extremely influential in the Party leadership, is not a part of the formal government. As the long-established heir-apparent to Hu Jintao for the Chinese Presidency, Xi is the future.

Whatever the true nature of Xi’s public absence, China’s leadership faces an enormous challenge in reconciling its proclivity for opaqueness with the demands of an increasingly plugged-in society at home and a global audience abroad.

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