Beijing: Chinese authorities and media remained silent on the whereabouts of Vice President Xi Jinping on Wednesday, with speculation mounting over why Beijing was not more forthcoming on the health of its president-in-waiting.

Xi has skipped meetings with a number of visiting leaders and senior officials over the past week, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, because of what sources told was a possible injury to his back suffered while swimming.

Xi has not been seen in public since Sept. 1 but Chinese officials have refused to give any explanation for his absence from the public stage, giving rise to bizarre speculation on the country's Internet rumour mill.

According to various theories being floated, the 59-year-old Xi has had a stroke or heart attack, was the target of an assassination attempt or was secreting himself, preparing for war.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, asked on Wednesday for the third consecutive day about Xi's health, declined again to respond. "I don't have any information about this to announce," he said.

The ministry, for the most part the only government department that regularly takes question from foreign reporters, has repeatedly refused to comment on Xi's status and whereabouts.

The lack of information on the health or whereabouts of the man who is essentially China's president-elect was beginning to cause some unease overseas.

"Something serious must have happened, because they would have put him on national TV right away had there been no serious physical problem," said Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.

"I rule out political foul play, that he is in some kind of serious political trouble. It's simply unimaginable," Pei said. "He gave a speech on Sept. 1, and that's after Beidaihe - if he were in political trouble, he wouldn't have given that speech."

Beidaihe is the seaside summer retreat of senior Communist Party leaders, who meet there every August to hammer out policies for the coming year. This year the talks were likely to have focused on the new party leadership to be unveiled at the party congress expected to be held in October.

With the party's congress held only once every five years and its top leaders being replaced only every decade, it is China's most important political event. The fact that its timing has not yet been announced has fuelled speculation about discord within the Communist Party.

NO WORRY

But other observers and newspapers said there was no cause for worry.

Xi is "healthy and in control," the well-regarded Hong Kong-based on-line magazine iSunAffairs reported, citing "direct and indirect contacts including Xi Jinping's relatives."

Xi "is busy preparing for the 18th Party Congress and planning how to push forward reform of the political system," the weekly magazine said. "As to why he has not appeared or met foreign guests for the last few days, it is probably his own personal choice."

Foreign businessmen attending the World Economic Forum meeting in the Chinese port city of Tianjin were not fazed.

"I haven't heard anything that would give me concerns at this point," said Rafael H. Saavedra, vice president of engineering at Right Scale, a cloud computing automation and management firm from Santa Barbara in the United States.

"There is a lot of speculation with very little information about what is really happening," he said. "So I think probably there is a good reason and there is nothing really strange."

Victor Chu, chairman of First Eastern Investment Group, said he was not worried, for now.

"If there is no clarity over another few weeks, I think there will be some concern. But from what I understand it is not a serious concern," he told.  

"Hopefully with this experience, the Chinese government officials will understand that China is now a key player in the world and obviously what happens in China arouses much more attention from the rest of the world," Chu said.

Some observers said it was simply a case of Chinese government officials not knowing how to manage information.

As China has grown into the world's second-largest economy, the country's corporate spokesmen and even some government officials have become more open and PR-savvy in dealing with domestic and foreign media.

But such people "encounter strong resistance from the more conservative elements who still think that the general health of the top leaders is a state secret," said Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong.

"They think that this kind of information may affect the leadership succession process or the party congress. They lack a sense of accountability to the domestic population and the international community," Cheng said.

"Of course, they are concerned that talking about these issues may anger top leaders who don't want their health being discussed."

(Agencies)

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