- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Xi Jinping, who is expected to succeed Chinese leader Hu Jintao and take charge of the communist state for the next 10 years, went into hiding last week, instantly shifting China’s rumor mills into high gear.

The mysterious disappearance of Mr. Xi occurred in a remarkable fashion as well: He canceled a long-scheduled meeting with visiting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the last minute, without explanation. Mrs. Clinton met other key leaders as planned, including Mr. Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Since then, Mr. Xi has missed a series of public events he was expected to attend.

A popular rumor circulating in China on the Internet is that Mr. Xi was in a swimming accident that injured his back. But lack of confirmation from any reliable or official sources has gone heightened speculation.

Online, an increasingly viral version says that Mr. Xi, along with He Guoqiang, the Communist Party’s internal disciplinary chief, were targets of an elaborate assassination plot involving choreographed car accidents that they barely survived. The plot is rumored to have happened around Sept. 1, the date of Mr. Xi’s last public appearance.

Xi Jinping is positioned at the center of the most intense power struggle in China in the last three decades. Unlike two previous predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Mr. Hu, whose designations by party elders as heirs apparent were never seriously challenged, Mr. Xi met with unusually strong opposition from within the ranks of the ruling Politburo.

It was widely reported and partially confirmed that a group of powerful and highly energetic detractors of Mr. Xi, led by the now purged Politburo member Bo Xilai, are challenging Mr. Xi’s qualifications to be China’s next leader. The challenge from Mr. Bo rocked the party’s establishment in March, and led to Mr. Bo’s downfall after the attempted defection to a U.S. consulate by his police chief in the city of Chongqing, where Mr. Bo was the top Communist Party overlord.

At present, the rumor mill continues to speculate on Mr. Xi’s whereabouts and his fate, and Chinese state-controlled media outlets continue to be mum on all of this.

According to the Economist, a foreign reporter in Beijing on Tuesday asked Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei about Mr. Xi’s disappearance and whether it is a sign of instability among top leaders and if it raises concerns that the vice president may not be alive.

“I hope you will raise serious questions,” Mr. Hong replied without a hint of irony.

The remark was not included in the official transcript of Mr. Hong’s news conference posted on the Foreign Ministry website, another sign of the extreme sensitivity about the missing leader within the government.

China names carrier ‘Liaoning’

The Chinese navy’s first aircraft carrier will be christened “Liaoning” after the province where it was retrofitted, according to China’s Southern Metropolitan Newsnet citing official sources.

The vessel, the former Varyag, was designed by the Soviet Union and construction in a Ukraine shipyard was half complete when the communist government collapsed.

In the early 1990s, the Chinese military bought the Varyag shell through a commercial entity and towed the vessel to the port of Dalian in the northeastern province of Liaoning for a complete refurbishment into an operational carrier.

Chinese military deception operatives put out word at the time that the vessel was being converted into a floating casino.

The warship has gone through extensive revamping, including the addition of a new propulsion system, modern electronics, and weapons systems.

The project set off a national craze in China for aircraft carriers as a symbol of national power. Choosing a name for the prized first carrier became a national obsession, and the task was not easy or transparent.

According to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) “Naval Vessels Naming Regulations,” cruisers shall be named after provinces, destroyers and frigates after cities, attack submarines after counties, supply ships after lakes, amphibious landing craft after mountains, mine sweepers after prefectures, infantry landing craft after rivers, and training vessels after people.

Naming new vessels also reflects high politics closely linked to China’s naval and maritime strategy. Naming the first carrier after a famous person would score bigger political points.

There was intense speculation that the Varyag would be renamed after Mao Zedong, China’s revered dictator and founder of the People's Republic of China, or Shi Lang, a 17th-century Chinese general who last “liberated” Taiwan for the motherland.

In recent months, due to heightened friction with Japan over the Senkaku island chain in the East China Sea, China’s more hawkish elements within the PLA suggested naming the vessel “Diaoyudao,” the Chinese name for Japan’s Senkaku Islands.

The vessel has undergone 10 sea trials but has yet to deploy the crucial element of its offensive weapons — combat aircraft. The absence of ship-borne jets indicates that Beijing is facing serious technical difficulties with the ability of PLA flight crews to master the challenge of landing and taking off using the deck of a moving carrier.

The highly anticipated launch date of July 1, the Communist Party’s founding date, and Aug. 1, PLA’s anniversary, have come and gone. The next expected launch date is Oct. 1, China’s National Day.

• Miles Yu’s column appears Thursday’s. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com.