Where is Xi Jinping?

He’s expected to take over as China’s leader next month, but Xi Jinping’s absence from the public eye over the past week and a half has sparked a wave of speculation over his whereabouts. From The Washington Post:

Chinese micro-bloggers and overseas websites have come up with all kinds of speculation as to why the current vice president has gone unseen for more than a week. During that span, Xi canceled meetings with visiting foreign dignitaries including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. On Monday, it was the Danish prime minister’s turn.

Xi’s whereabouts during this sudden absence from the spotlight may never be known. One thing, however, is certain: China may now be a linchpin of the global economy and a force in international diplomacy, but the lives of its leaders remain an utter mystery to its 1.3 billion people, its politics an unfathomable black hole.

So when the presumptive head of that opaque leadership disappears from public view, rumor mills naturally go into a frenzy.

The New York Times reports that the situation is “conspicuous” given its proximity to China’s transfer of power, and is just the latest in a long line of disruptions to the Communist Party’s plans for a smooth transition. One source told Reuters last week that Xi had hurt his back while taking his daily swim, and The South China Morning Post noted that a Communist Party newspaper attempted to dispel rumors by publishing the text of a September 1st speech Xi gave at the Central Party School.

Still, netizens have seized on the mystery and put forth a number of speculative accounts. The overseas Chinese news site Boxun published and then retracted a report that Xi had been involved in a car crash with fellow high ranking official He Guoqiang, even implying that disgraced former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai had a hand in the fictitious accident. The Wall Street Journal has more on the online rumor mill:

Despite government efforts to crack down on online commentary, Mr. Xi was the subject of speculation on fast-moving microblogs, which work like Twitter.

“Jinping, what’s the deal?” read one post on Sina Corp.’s popular Weibo microblogging service, which used Mr. Xi’s given name and had been left untouched by censors Monday evening. “The entire country from top to bottom is paying attention.”

As is often the case with China’s top leaders, Chinese and English language searches for Mr. Xi’s full name and surname were blocked on Weibo on Monday. But searches for “Jinping” weren’t blocked in Chinese, though periodic searches using those characters produced fewer results each time, suggesting censors were busy deleting posts about Mr. Xi.

One of the reporters, Josh Chin, tweeted that a link he had posted to this article on Sina Weibo was censored within ten minutes.

The Financial Times’ Jamil Anderlini writes that Xi’s disappearance “underscores the opacity” inherent in China’s authoritarian one-party political system:

“We know Xi Jinping is supposed to be the next leader [of China] but we have very little idea how he was chosen, which is quite amazing for such a significant position in world politics,” said David Zweig, a professor specialising in Chinese politics at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “Perhaps he’s got some health problems, but they don’t want to let the public know about it because they feel it’s important to present the image of a strong healthy leader taking China into the future.”