Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping appeared in public for the first time in two weeks, ending an absence that fueled speculation about his health and prospects for succeeding Hu Jintao as the nation’s leader.
Xi visited an exhibition at the China Agricultural University in Beijing at about 9:30 a.m. yesterday, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. China Central Television showed footage of the 59-year-old smiling and shaking hands with children while taking part in activities to mark National Science Popularization Day, and China National Radio broadcast Xi’s voice as he delivered a speech during the event.
The appearance of Xi may alleviate concern about the leadership succession in China, where the Communist Party is likely to meet as early as next month ahead of a once-in-a-decade transfer of power. Chinese officials had declined to comment on reasons for Xi’s cancellation of meetings this month with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
“The photo and news release from Xinhua aren’t enough to end all the rumors and doubts about Xi,” Linda Li, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “This can only show that Xi’s situation isn’t deteriorating. If China wants to further allay speculation over his health and uncertainties over leadership transition, it might need to release more information on Xi’s schedule in the near term.”
The cancellation of meetings with foreign leaders this month raised questions about a leadership succession that had already been clouded by the scandal surrounding ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai. The party still hasn’t announced the date of the congress when the handover to a new generation of leaders will begin.
Xi was accompanied yesterday by senior government officials including Wang Zhaoguo and Han Qide, vice chairmen of China’s top lawmaking body, and Liu Yunshan, head of the Communist Party’s publicity department, according to Xinhua.
He toured an exhibit on China’s self-cultivated pest- and drought-resistant corn, and also participated in testing for melamine in milk, Xinhua said. China needs the entire country to participate and care about food safety, which is an important issue, Xi was cited as saying in the report.
CCTV’s evening news program showed Xi, who wore a dark jacket with a light shirt, picking up and studying two ears of corn at an exhibit and observing children conducting laboratory experiments. He was later shown delivering a speech to at least 30 people on the program, which didn’t carry his voice.
Separately, the evening radio news aired a clip of Xi advising children to develop good dietary habits and exhorting them to conduct more scientific experiments.
A volunteer at the university said Xi looked healthy and was smiling when he visited the exhibition. The student declined to provide her name, saying that she isn’t a spokeswoman for the university. Xi left the event in less than an hour, according to another volunteer, who also didn’t want to be identified.
Media reports published since Xi’s absence said variously he may have suffered a heart attack or sustained a back injury, either while playing soccer or swimming. Citing unidentified people from China, the Hong Kong Economic Times reported on Sept. 14 that he has only a minor injury, amid speculation that he may have cancer or been in a car accident.
Prior to his appearance yesterday, Xi was last seen in public speaking at the Party School of the Communist Party on Sept. 1. The official Guangxi Daily also reported on Sept. 13 that the vice president joined other top Chinese officials in sending condolences to the family of a top party member who died on Sept. 6.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said last week the cancellations of meetings with foreign leaders were a “normal adjustment” and declined to address Xi’s health.
“If China doesn’t release more details officially, this will continue to raise speculation over Xi,” Ming Sing, an associate professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s division of social science, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It is important for the Chinese government to come out and clarify all the doubts as investors and the public have been expecting Xi to be the leader of China in the next five to 10 years.”
Xi is the son of a former vice premier and ran coastal Zhejiang province from 2002 to 2007. He was party secretary in Shanghai in 2007 before being appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee at the 17th party congress during the fall of that year. On a trip to the U.S. in February, he met with President Barack Obama in Washington and toured rural Muscatine, Iowa, which he had visited as an agricultural official 27 years before.
“The leadership will need to explain the absence still in order to stabilize expectations,” Noah Feldman, a Harvard University law professor and a columnist for Bloomberg View, said in an e-mail yesterday. “Otherwise there will still be a meaningful cost to legitimacy.”