Vice-Premier Huang Ju was conspicuously absent from a key Communist Party leaders' seminar on rural reform yesterday.
Official media reports said Mr Huang was the only Politburo Standing Committee member who did not take part in the high-level Central Party School seminar for provincial and central government ministers on the building of a 'new socialist countryside'.
It was the second time that Mr Huang had failed to join other top state leaders at a gathering in recent weeks. He also did not attend last weekend's Lantern Festival celebration at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound.
There has been no official explanation of Mr Huang's absence, but overseas media have started to speculate that the vice-premier might be ill.
As a sign of the importance the senior leadership attached to yesterday's meeting, all top officials including President Hu Jintao , Premier Wen Jiabao , National People's Congress chairman Wu Bangguo and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference chairman Jia Qinglin took part.
The party seminar was billed by official media as a significant party meeting held to build a consensus on the concept of a 'new socialist countryside' - a key reform agenda for President Hu.
Mr Huang last appeared in public in late January at a work conference on the management of state assets.