RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The rumor mills in China are in overdrive this week, with speculation about the health and whereabouts of the heir to China's top leader. Just weeks before Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to be elevated to head of the party, he seems to have disappeared. He's been mysteriously out of sight since last week when he missed an important meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and also the Prime Ministers of Denmark and Singapore.
Joining us to talk about this is Rob Gifford, the China editor at The Economist magazine and our onetime colleague here at NPR.
Nice to talk to you again, Rob.
ROB GIFFORD: And it's good to be back on NPR, Renee.
MONTAGNE: So the speculation about what has happened to Xi Jinping ranges from the mild - a back injury - to an assassination attempt by a rival. What really do we know about his whereabouts?
GIFFORD: Well, we really don't know anything. And that's really the problem, Renee. We've got this extraordinary country that you and I have been reporting on for many years, this sort of multicolored society, an economic and social revolution going on on the ground. But right at the heart of it is still the black box of Leninist politics. And it's been completely closed. We don't know anything. And of course, into the vacuum has stepped all the China watchers because nobody knows anything. It's the most bizarre situation.
MONTAGNE: Well, could it be linked to the fact that, in fact, next month, apparently, there's going to be a once-in-a-decade change of leadership?
GIFFORD: This is the big question that everyone wants to know. If it is linked to that, then it's very, very serious indeed and very dramatic, because Xi Jinping has been groomed for years to be the next secretary general of the Communist Party and the next president of China. So I think, probably, in as much as we know anything, it is not linked to that. I think it's more likely to be something medical.
But, again, even if it something medical, even if he's gone for an operation, the fact that there is no openness - at all the press conferences they have completely put the lid on any questions that Westerners have been asking. So, of course, there's going to be speculation filling the vacuum.
MONTAGNE: Has anything like this happened before?
GIFFORD: There have been occasions when leaders have dropped out of view back in the 1990s. And, of course, before that with Chairman Mao and the leaders during the height of communism in the '50s and '60s. The difference, of course, is the environment. The environment, even in the 1990s when Li Peng the premiere dropped out of view for a while, was very different. It wasn't expected that we would be seeing them and knowing what they were doing so much. And there was no Internet.
The Internet is an absolute game changer in China, the micro blogs and the buzz that is created. And what that creates, within the society in China, that is the crucial thing now. And that is what means that really the Chinese Communist Party is going to have to come out and say something within the coming days or I think this could become much worse in all the speculation, indeed.
MONTAGNE: Do you have any sense of what might be going on here?
GIFFORD: If I had to put money on it, I'd probably say that it is something medical. He's, perhaps, had an operation. Maybe it's true he has slipped a disk or done something to his back. But it's impossible to know. And the big question now that a lot of people are asking is political. Is it symbolic of some kind of split within the politburo that could have huge political ramifications? And that's what people are going to be watching in the coming weeks leading up to this party congress and beyond.
MONTAGNE: Rob Gifford is China Editor for the Economist magazine. Thanks very much.
GIFFORD: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.