China's leaders have a long history of disappearing without offering an explanation to either their own people or the outside world. Mao Zedong left Beijing for his home village in Hunan province in 1966, returning after eight months to launch the Cultural Revolution. Twenty years later, Deng Xiaoping exited the stage for three months, temporarily leaving it to his underlings to grapple with the economic reforms he had initiated.
It may yet prove to be the case that Xi Jinping, who in weeks is expected to become China's new paramount leader, is only paying homage to his predecessors by disappearing from the public eye. Mr. Xi, currently the Vice-President, hasn't been seen since Sept. 1 – notable in a country where the main evening newscast on state-run CCTV opens each night with an eye-glazing description of the activities of the Communist Party leaders.
During his absence, Mr. Xi has missed scheduled meetings with the prime ministers of Singapore and Denmark, as well as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
As in the time of Mao and Deng, the Communist Party apparatus feels it's nobody's business where Mr. Xi is. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has spent the past three days swatting away the question as though it is unworthy of being asked or answered.
Where has Mr. Xi been? Is there anything wrong with him? When will he reappear? "I have no information to provide you," was the answer Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei gave to all three lines of questioning at a press conference on Wednesday.
But Beijing's worn tactic of pretending the rest of the world doesn't have a right to know where China's leaders are doesn't work as well in 2012. No longer a hermit state, China is the world's second-largest economy and closely integrated with its trading partners. "Where is Xi Jinping?" was being asked this week by delegates attending a meeting of the World Economic Forum in the Chinese port of Tianjin. Mao never had to deal with that.
China's own citizens have also been tearing at the same wall of silence regarding the whereabouts of the man they've been told will soon be their leader. The terms "Xi Jinping," "vice-president," "back injury" and "Xi heart attack" were all blocked Wednesday on Sina Weibo, the country's wildly popular Twitter-style microblogging service. ("Car accident," "stroke" and "assassination attempt" were all fine to search for. Perhaps that's a hint, perhaps not.)
Internet users got around the censors by turning to English, with thousands of posts asking "Where is She?" a play on the pronunciation of Mr. Xi's family name. "It's the tenth day. Where is She?! The people of your motherland are missing you," read one.
Meanwhile, the rumour mill continues to swirl. The initial story that made the rounds was that the 59-year-old Mr. Xi had hurt his back, either swimming or playing soccer. But that now seems improbable given the number of meetings he's missed. Two Advils and a good chair could get Mr. Xi through his most important meetings, at least long enough for the TV cameras to capture the moment and end the damaging speculation.
Other, more worrisome, versions have Mr. Xi suffering a stroke, or a heart attack. Either would call into question his ability to run the country for the next decade, flipping the Communist Party's intricately planned transfer of power – which was already jolted this year by the scandalous fall from grace of former party star Bo Xilai – upside down. Overseas Chinese websites have even speculated about some kind of assassination plot, allegedly involving the allies of Mr. Bo.
The latest rumour is that Mr. Xi has just gone to ground, like Mao and Deng before him, to plot what he will do upon taking power.
The lack of information is creating concern in Beijing and beyond. Mr. Xi was expected to take over as general-secretary of the Communist Party some time next month as part of a broader transition that would see seven of the current nine members of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo step aside for a new generation of leaders.
Only Mr. Xi and current Vice-Premier Li Keqiang were expected to remain, with Mr. Xi taking over from Hu Jintao as President and Mr. Li succeeding Premier Wen Jiabao. The shape of the rest the Standing Committee – which could have anywhere from seven to 11 members – is believed to be the subject of ongoing negotiations between the various Communist Party factions, with Mr. Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, vying to wield influence over the next generation of leaders.
If Mr. Xi now cannot assume the leadership role, the uncertainty, accompanied by factional infighting, would grow. He is seen as a compromise selection between the various interest groups.