An 'itinerary adjustment' just won't cut it for Xi's no-shows

Rumours are unlikely to fade over the real reasons for the vice-president cancelling meetings

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2012, 3:24pm

"Nothing is trivial when foreign affairs are concerned." That has been the long-standing motto of officials involved in China's foreign relations.

That may help explain why the officials have had a hard time batting down speculation about why Vice-President Xi Jinping made last-minute cancellations of meetings with two important overseas visitors last week.

They said the cancellation was a "normal itinerary adjustment" and urged outsiders not to make "unnecessary speculation".

Nonetheless, speculation has been intense since Xi pulled out of the meetings with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The weak explanation of an "itinerary adjustment" is unlikely to cut it, not only because mainland officials take diplomatic protocols very seriously, but also because the details of itineraries involving meetings with the visiting high-ranking officials were probably thrashed out months ago.

This has given rise to several alternative explanations for the cancellations. One suggested Xi may have hurt his back playing soccer or while swimming, and that he needed to rest.

Another said the cancelled meeting with Clinton was a subtle gesture of Beijing's unhappiness with Washington's recent actions, including its comments in regard to a regional dispute over rights to the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. This, however, sounds less plausible. Sino-US ties are of utmost importance to Beijing and there is no reason for Xi not to meet Clinton.

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao had met her, as did Vice-Premier Li Keqiang , who will most likely be the new premier after a leadership reshuffle this autumn. Those meetings were aimed largely at showing the high level of importance that Beijing has attached to ties with Washington.

Briefly last week, there were also rumours about whether Xi may have made a low-key trip to Shenzhen to meet our chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, to assess Hong Kong's intense political situation, after Leung unexpectedly cancelled his trip to Russia for an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation leadership summit on Wednesday - the same day that news broke of Xi's cancelled meetings. But that speculation was quickly dismissed, as Hong Kong officials said Leung was staying in the city to deal with urgent matters, including protests over the proposed implementation of a national education curriculum in Hong Kong schools.

The rumours about Xi grew so intense that Beijing took the unusual step last week of notifying Hong Kong reporters that Xi would meet Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt today, even though there was no scheduled meeting with Xi on her published itinerary. Overseas reporters are likely to descend today on the Great Hall of the People to cover the meeting.

Indeed, these are extraordinary times. Xi's no-shows came at an extremely sensitive time, as leaders are in the last stretch of their preparations for the Communist Party's upcoming 18th congress, when Xi and Li will likely be appointed to take over power from Hu and Wen.

Because of the mainland's opaque politics, particularly surrounding the leadership change, overseas media and analysts have often had to rely on official media reports of leaders' public activities for clues about their health, and the political standing of the leaders who are reportedly involved in fierce political fighting over picking candidates to join the new leadership. For instance, some internet users have already noticed that He Guoqiang , another Politburo Standing Committee member and the mainland's top official in charge of anti-corruption, has been absent from the public eye for more than a week.

Baring Xi himself offering a very unlikely explanation today about his cancelled meetings last week, the outside world may never know the exact reason, and the rumours are unlikely to fade away, even if he appears at today's meeting.